Quite a number of years ago, I came across John F. Carlson’s book Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting. In this book he outlines his Theory of Angles. I light bulb went off in my head. I’d always been focused on the value of the elements in my paintings, but his theory gave me a solid construct to work from and build stronger compositions. Our paintings will be strong and dynamic if the under-pinning design is strong. We want to see and paint the elements in our scene as simply as possible. Carlson’s Theory of Angles is a tool we can use to compose our paintings and group together similar values.

From this solid basis, we can then move away from local color arrangements and value arrangements and be much more inventive!

The value of each plane or mass in the landscape is determined by how much light is hitting it. Let’s start with a six value scale including black and white, but reserve white for highlights and black for the darkest accents. That leaves us with only 4 values to deal with! Simple!!


1. Arch of the sky – it’s the source of light. The sky is almost always the lightest value in our paintings. Nothing makes a painting look like the work of an amateur more than making a blue sky too dark!
2. Ground Plane – it is the next lightest because it receives the most light from the sky
3. Angled Planes – (Mountains, hillsides and such)because these planes or shapes are angled away from the light source, they do not receive as much light as the horizontal or ground plane
4. Upright Planes – Trees, bushes etc. Receive the least amount of light from the sky and therefore will be the darkest masses in the landscape. Note: This does not apply to man-made elements in the landscape such as a white building, cars etc.Tell your story. Use catchy text, bullets, links and more to bring your words to life.

Now, let’s get more creative. We’ve got this tidy structure to start with, but from here we can have some fun. What if the sky was NOT the lightest value? What will happen with our composition? Will it still read as a landscape? Will it still work? Let’s see…


Yep! And it turns out we can make it work many, many different ways. This is where I have the most fun. I break away from my photo reference easily by switching up the value relationships. I know my piece will still have a structure as long as I have a variety of scale between the masses (elements). Then I can move onto playing with color. But that’s for another lesson!

With Warmest Regards,

Painting Minilessons
with Marla Baggetta

These “mini-lessons” grew out of my blog. I love sharing my experience behind the easel, so these are free. I write a new one every two or three weeks, so please feel free to share with artist friends.

​These lessons are mostly written text with graphics…short but useful tidbits from the foundations of painting that touch on subjects such as aerial perspective, simultaneous contrast or using negative spaces. I guide you through different aspects of painting and art that will get you comfortable with using pastels. You’ll gain confidence to attempt work that you might have otherwise been timid about.

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