Lines and Colors art blog

John F. Carlson

John F. Carlson
I woke up to an uncharacteristic November snow here in Philadelphia, and my mind jumped to the beautiful woodland snow scenes of John Carlson.

Born in Sweden, John Fabian Carlson moved to the U.S. with his family at the age of nine. He studied art in the evenings and worked as a lithographer during the day, helping to support his family until he was 28.

He then moved to New York and attended the Art Students League on a scholarship, studying with Frank DuMond, and later with Birge Harrison at Woodstock. During his time in New York he also worked as an illustrator, but I’ve been unable to find images of his illustration work.

Carlson became associated with the Art Students League, serving as Birge Harrison’s assistant when the League began classes in Woodstock, and later succeeding him as director. He was later director of the Broadmore Art Academy in Colorado, but returned to Woodstock to found the John F. Carlson School of Landscape Painting.

Though not considered an American Impressionist, he shared their penchant for combining a strong academic foundation with free, painterly brushwork and bright, expressive color, particularly in his later work.

He became devoted to the subject of woods in winter, often in snow – a subject in abundance in Woodstock, in which he found rich variation in color, dramatic arrangements of value and composition, and subtle atmospheric effects.

It’s interesting to compare him to painters like the Pennsylvania Impressionist Edward Redfield, who pursued similar subject matter, and displayed an equally hardy devotion to winter painting out of doors.

Carlson codified some of his teachings into a book, still in print after almost 80 years, as Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting.

Despite the somewhat outdated tone of voice, the book is a treasure of landscape paintings fundamentals; and is one of those painting reference books that you come back to again and again, discovering more as your own understanding deepens over time.

Don’t be put off by the fact that the images are in black and white (though a color version would be a wonderful thought for some publisher to pursue), think of the book as akin to books by Hawthorne or Sloan, that are valuable without illustrations at all, and then think of the black an white images in Carlson’s book as a deluxe bonus.

The sections on atmospheric and linear perspective alone are worth the Dover paperback edition’s modest price of ten dollars.

I’ve found a scattering of Carlson’s paintings on the web. Though unfortunately none are large; they are enough to give you a taste of the beautiful atmosphere and compositional geometry that, combined with his mastery of tree forms and obvious love for his subjects, give his winter scenes deep visual and emotional warmth.


12 responses to “John F. Carlson”

  1. Another wonderful post. Thank you! I have the Carlson book, though I have yet to read it. Unfortunately, my interest wasn’t strong because of the lack of color reproductions to lure me in. I’d always planned on getting to it, but other books always demand my attention first. Your color image of Carlson’s work was a great reminder of who he was as an artist, and what he might have to offer as a teacher. Thank you again.


  2. Beautiful picture of how the simple can be such a strong image when painted by a master. I’m looking forward to those short days when the light is weak and low…


  3. Thank you for putting up this post. I think that I read Carlson’s book once a year, and always find something new to think about and incorporate into my paintings. Your links remind me how little I have seen of his color works, but his design shines right through the black and white images. It is great to read as a go-to-sleep book – not too heavy, and it gives you something to internalize as you fall asleep.

  4. A fine post, Charley, a great roundup of Carlson’s work and writing. The Met painting on the web has a nice zoom feature that lets one examine those brushstrokes and texture. And the imagery Carlson has depicted for that one makes one shiver at how that snow must have been just as wet as it was cold.

    It’s fascinating how an artist specializing in a particular subject can explore a single, simple attribute of his subject and make so much of it. In Carlson’s case it’s snow adhering up along the trunks of trees, a signal to the viewer that this was a recent intense and wet snowstorm. Carlson made this almost a trademark in his snow scenes. (It’s not in every scene but it’s in a great many.) Set against a clear manganese or cerulean blue sky that similarly signals the bright clear day that so often follows a nor’easter. He wasn’t just recreating a particular scene, he was depicting a particular kind of day and temperature as well.

    Button up!

  5. Thanks for the back-story on an author I have much respect for.

    I was disappointed to learn that his book is still in print, since I got mine from a dusty-shelf book seller and thought that I had really gotten the canary!

  6. I bought the book in Amazon. His work is too wonderful. I love it. Thanks for posting this.
    Now I cant wait for it to arrive. I was told it has a lot of black and white images and not many colored…which sucks but eitherway…I bet it is a great book.

  7. Great post Charley!….I’m glad that John Carlson has found a place on your amazing blog at last. I’m continually drawn back to this master of the landscape to seek both knowledge and inspiration. Those trees of his are amazing.

    As for “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting”….well, I consider it one of the finest treatises ever written on the subject, and highly recommend it to anyone.

  8. I ran across this new book by an author who pays homage to Carlson. There are quite a few good excerpt pages available to view. Expressive Oil Painting, An Open Air Approach to Creative Landscapes By George Allen Durkee
    Format: Paperback. You can view it on the ‘your website’ link above which is actually an page.

  9. peter lang Avatar
    peter lang

    found land scape painting signed carlson snowscape in forest winding tracks in the snow looks like many of the j.f.carlson paintings ive seen on the net .ther is no j f can it be his work.812-354-4818

  10. Adam Tharpe Avatar
    Adam Tharpe

    Thanks, for all the info, plus the links. I had a hard time finding color images of his work.

  11. Collectors may find that Fern Coppedge’s work is very similar.

    I’m an unrelated Coppedge who prefers abstract art.

    See my gallery at: