Telemark Sketches

These are some of my plein air sketches from the past week in Telemark, Norway.

plein air sketch of a dog by a cabin in Telemark, Norway

Mikki at the Cabin. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Oil painting of Sailboats in Bergen, Norway

Sailboats, Bergen. 30 x 20 cm, oil on linen.

Oil landscape painting of a River Scene in Telemark, Norway.

River Scene, Telemark. 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.

I’ll admit I struggled a bit with the landscapes this trip. I’ve discussed before the technical problems of using sight-size for big views on small panels, but the problem here is also that the big Norwegian vistas don’t translate well on a small format to begin with.

Oil painting of Hardanger Fjord, Norway

Hardanger Sketch #1. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Oil painting of Hardanger Fjord, Norway.

Hardanger Sketch #2. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Also, during the few days I was there, I drove a lot. Twice I spent six hours straight driving, then walking, then driving, while scouting for views. I say this a lot,  but going somewhere to paint with too many painting choices can be worse that painting in a location where you have to squeeze the paintings out of meager subject matter. It is so stunningly picturesque in western and central Norway that I would find a view, then think “there might be something better just up the road”, then drive on. The problem I had in Norway is that I did always find something better up the road, so I would keep driving.

Oil painting of the mountains in Telemark.

Melting Snow and Ice, Telemark. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

landscape painting of a farm in telemark, norway

Farm at Nyland. 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.

There is also the ‘dolphins jumping at sunset’ problem. Some views are too pretty to render well in paint. The Norwegian mountains in June have stunning snow covered peaks, beautiful blue fjords, cute-as-a-button barns and old wooden houses, the tail end of the fruit trees in blossom, clear blue skies with white puffy clouds, and lambs, lambs everywhere. The English call them ‘chocolate box paintings’, as the views would look like the paintings done to decorate the ubiquitous Swiss chocolate boxes.

Landscape painting of a farm near Vinje, Norway

Farm at Vinje, Backlit. 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.

Oil painting of a Farm in Vinje, Norway

Farm at Vinje, Overcast. 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.

It got me wondering though, why does such beauty not work in paintings? It should be something desirable. People fly and drive long distances to see these views. Clearly we find it pleasurable to be in good weather, looking at fertile land, tall healthy trees, clean water, and delicious little animals. They’ve done studies which show that people have a genetic predilection towards landscapes very similar to these. Yet putting it all in a painting would make the work saccharine. They say advertising has made people distrust beauty. I was wondering if the first Swiss chocolate companies to put these landscapes on their boxes found them too sweet (and maybe that was the point). Why is too much beauty a problem in art? Is it because of the excess? As the Greeks said, ‘all things in moderation’. Is it because one aspect of the work of the poet should be to show people beauty where they wouldn’t normally see it? Is painting the beauty of Norwegian mountain scenes in June just too easy?

Oil painting of a cabin in Telemark

Cabin, Telemark. 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.

The mechanics of working in situations where one is overcome by the beauty of the location is interesting. I have always agreed with Friedrich Nietzsche that the greatest art is a merger of Dionysian and Apollonian elements. Strong emotion directed and controlled by logic and reason. Harold Speed expressed it better for painters when he wrote “how can the draughtsman, who does not know how to draw accurately the cold, commonplace view of an object, hope to give expression to the subtle differences presented by the same thing seen under the excitement of strong feeling?” Painting in a place as stunningly beautiful as the mountains of Norway in June requires a great deal of control, patience, and thought. More than I feel I came up with on this trip. I hope to go back next year with more time and bigger canvases.


  1. I started having this discussion the other day, which lead to many internal thoughts. The level of acceptable sweetness in a painting is a very subjective thing. Edgar Payne said that waterfalls are too sentimental to be painted, and yet I have seen many successful waterfall paintings (IMHO).

    I think that when it comes down to it for me, it is not JUST the subject matter, but the handling as well. Painting something like a cute little milkmaid can be a very risky subject in this regard. However, to me, Millet’s paintings are not overly sweet, while Bouguereau’s paintings are much too sweet for my taste.

  2. Marc,

    You bring up some great points. Sentimentality in painting can be very off-putting, but trying to define what makes it cheesy or overly sweet can be difficult (especially when evaluating our own work). I think this is why a lot of contemporary art has written off beauty. I mean if I’m a writer, won’t I be taken more seriously for writing something dark, than some kind of feel-good drivel. Or if I want to be taken seriously as a musician wouldn’t I write angry songs about the government or social issues rather than some banal pop song about love. Maybe the challenge for those of us who still believe in beauty is to take it beyond to obvious, superficial and formulaic. I think inspiration and authenticity have to be behind whatever it is we are painting. After all doesn’t a work that is uninspired come off as feeling forced and contrived? If a painting is not an authentic representation of ourselves, then aren’t we just pandering to customers or critics? Maybe the problem with “dolphins jumping in the sunset” and some of the breath taking scenes you describe is that we already know that they’re beautiful. They don’t challenge us to see the world in new ways or find beauty in unexpected places. Maybe such scenes don’t demand much from us as painters (as you said- it’s too easy) and they don’t demand much from their viewers and so they are less engaging.

  3. I struggle with the “to many choices to paint’ syndrome regularly. There is always the (possibly apocryphal) Sargent story of just plopping down in a field and then turning until you see the best view. What works best for me is if I’m on foot. If I lose the car or transport, I just really can’t walk that far. Although I confess I have, and you still always wonder if there is a better and possibly more saleable view around the corner.

    Not that I claim to have succeded at it, but I think you said it. ” Is it because one aspect of the work of the poet should be to show people beauty where they wouldn’t normally see it.”

    Too many painters before us have shown certain aspects of beauty, so they have become sacharine cliches. But still fun to paint!

  4. “delicious little animals” – that sounds like a very Gallic approach – are they edible (grin)?

    By chance, I was thinking about this “sentimental” problem too – so it was interesting to read your thoughts…

  5. ok, I think the ‘dolphins jumping at sunset’ problem gets to the heart of some of the problems facing contemporary realism. The ‘beauty’ of that scene that the painter (traveller, surfer or whatever), appreciates, derives that experience out of their subjective experience ‘with’ the subject matter. Beauty arises out of the interaction between the subjective experience and the view, or thing itself. Beauty is not simply the sum of the parts. David Hume, I think, made this point. In other words the reason ‘dolphins jumping at sunset’ may be beautiful is tied up as much with the person viewing it as with the scene. That same scene may not be as beautiful to the fisherman failing to catch fish and failing to pay his bills, and to some extent that view that once awed us may fade, or dim, as we grow accustomed to it. A lot of modern realist painting has become only about image making, attmepting to capture just the beauty, as if ‘beauty’ is immediately transferrable, and we might find an algorithm for beautiful paintings. But clearly it isn’t because, as Marc points out, the ‘chocolate box’ images of Swiss alpine villages, appears saccharine and repulsive when endlessly reproduced. Yet people come to the alps and are awed by them. This seeming paradox is, I think, at the nub of things.
    I’m not sure there is an easy way through this except for the painter to try and paint more than the image. To attempt to capture why they are so raptured, and that in itself may necessitate dare I say suggesting in paint the opposites to the feelings one is having. i.e. perhaps, what is life without that awe and wonder. I think an analogy can be made with the great works of music, they have not simply the moments of triumph or joy, but also the shades of dark that make up the human experience and allow us verily to define joy. So when Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-Flat, Op. 100 D. 929: II. Andante con moto, has you leaping around the room at the moment of collapse and climax, it is only after the slow and various build up.
    Finally, there was much discussion between scholars over what made Greek architecture so appealing. I think Nietzsche was onto something. Perhaps that the beauty of Greek design came directly associated with the tremendous horror of parts of Greek civilisation, I won’t dare to paraphrase Nietzsche, this is simply my reading of it. But in essence, the point I felt was that sacrifice is at the heart of tremendous art. The tragedy (the epitome of Greek culture) is that fine balance of chaos and order. Ok, risk of rambling. Tune in to the alpine fellowship in September, or come directly to the lecture (it’s open to everyone), to hear Roger Scruton give his very worthwhile ten pence on ‘art and kitsch’.

  6. Hi Marc,
    I can certainly identify with the site-sized problem with small panels although at least two of your current crop seem to defy that problem, Hardanger sketch #2 in particular has a great sense of space!
    I was lucky at college to have had a teacher who would take afew of us out and drop us in different places on our own and expect half a dozen sketches when he picked us up a few hours later without being allowed to move from that spot. After a while we learned to “grow into” a place and it got us out of the habit of looking for better views around the next corner.
    I also remember taking some students to a local beauty spot which was a bit of a dirty trick really because they all said “wow” when they saw it but completely failed to find a way to paint it. The real subjects were in the people who were picnicking, playing with their dogs and so on. Thus the lesson was to paint figures in a landscape, rather than just the landscape.
    I certainly think that a piece which shows beauty in the mundane gives the viewer a jolt that a “pretty” scene does not so I think you have hit the nail on the head there. Part of our job is to show the viewer something of interest that he might not have noticed himself.
    Maybe we should stop travelling around looking for nice venues to work at and go to old railway sidings and slums instead?
    Discussion for AITO?

  7. Many years ago, so many that I can no longer remember the source, I heard this comment that an artist attributed to his teacher: “If you paint something that is extraordinary, it will look ordinary. If you paint something ordinary, it will look extraordinary.”

  8. I think that there’s more to see on something not perfect. A nice face, perfect, is nice, to be beautiful it must have something wrong, something more.. If the vue is perfect, it doesn’t means it brings you strong feelings. It often must be too much something, no? If the landscape is amazing BUT perfect, it’s perhaps our job as an artist to make it more human, in making choices. Alteration, strange compositions… Looking for an atmosphere more than a good picture. I wonder what will be the next post.. It’s such a good question. Why the “picturest” is the worst choice while painting things without nice subject works. Perhaps because you work harder to search “why” you like, what you’re feeling and because you test more, you use more your own personality?
    Sorry for my english, I do the best I can!
    Vive la peinture!

  9. I was wandering what was the different texture i was seeing and realised you used canvas. I am used to your flat panels and must admit i prefer them. I never liked the way light reflects on the weave of a canvas. I feel the texture kills the feeling of depth. I suppose it’s because sketchs are painted fast and thin. In studio paintings with ticker impasto, it shows less.

  10. On a second look, only one of your paintings was done on canvas so, sorry for that last comment.

    About your questionings, I read all the comments and find it’s a very interresting discussion.
    At first, my answer was, like Jesse and Tom, that romanticism just doesn’t work well in paintings.
    It’s too obvious and in some way, it’s shouty.
    A painting that cries: “look, it’s beautifull” is never interesting. It’s worst than being “too easy”, it’s boring.

    I think that for a painting to be good, it must bring you out of it. One must paint a subject in a way that the viewer is carried out. No matter how. It’s not that the painting must not be too perfect, it’s that there should be something unresolved about it. If you say it all, if you put it all in there, what’s left for the viewer to do? Why would he come back to it?

    Of course, as painters, we look at paintings differently. Of course, we’ll go back to see a well executed work, with inspiring composition, colors and light. But not everybody. Most people will need more.

    • Actually Benoit, all of these are on linen. Thanks for pointing out the mistake. It’s a very fine portrait-grade weave, but I photographed the work with one light source so it shows up more. Now that I’m home I can rephotograph them with proper light.

      I think what you say is right, too many beautiful elements compete for attention and leave the whole work flat. Roger Scruton uses the example of St Paul’s Cathedral in London surrounded by buildings which compete for attention compared with Santa Maria della Salute in Venice which towers above it’s humble neighboring buildings for a more beautiful effect.

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