top of page

My Grandfather John Fabian Carlson

Updated: May 27, 2023

By Barbara B. Carlson

Happy New Year to Everyone! Enjoy Barbara B. Carlson's piece today on her grandfather John F. Carlson. Sculpture lectures are back on January 12th and February 9th at 7 p.m. The link and infomation for January is

Unknown photographer

John F. Carlson Hiking with Easel and Paintbox, c. 1928

Courtesy of Carlson family

In 2020, I began a conversation with Bruce Weber, who writes the most wonderful histories on Woodstock artists, including my grandfather, John Fabian Carlson. Bruce asks insightful questions about the artists’ day-to-day lives of long ago, and he’s a master of uncovering detail, often the fulcrum on which his story turns. My recent exploration in our Carlson Family Archives turned up some unmarked black-and-white photos in the John F. Carlson files. When I showed them to Bruce he asked when they were taken. By whom? And why? Responses to these questions began to form in my mind. What follows are my thoughts, memories of family stories and always the sense of my grandfather’s devotion to nature. We grandchildren never knew him since he died in 1945, before our time. But through so many paintings we came to understand his love of the natural world. Here, I’ll call him JFC.

Unknown photographer

Original Carlson Studio and House, North Side, Woodstock, N.Y. c.1928

Courtesy of Carlson family

JFC and his three sons

Original Carlson Studio and House, East Side, Woodstock, New York, c. 1928

Courtesy of Carlson family

My parents raised us all in the original Carlson studio. The great north windows reached to the second story ceiling and indirect light poured in all day. Blazing fires crackled in the huge stone fireplace, often our gathering place on cold evenings. Our grand piano saw lots of action by people who could really play, and by children relentlessly banging out chopsticks in duet. JFC's paintings populated the studio's walls high and low, and the faint fragrance of turpentine-and-linseed oil medium never left the air. The paintings themselves felt like individuals, family members. We were steeped in their many moods as we gazed, day-dreaming from the studio couch. Nature, silent but dynamic, came alive in his compositions. Forever roaming the same countryside he did, we children were connecting what we saw with his works on the canvas.

Unknown photographer

"Lone Pine," Detail from Contact Sheet of Eight, c. 1928

Courtesy of Carlson family

Unknown photographer

"Snowy Stream," Detail from Contact Sheet of Eight, c. 1928

Courtesy of Carlson family

One of JFC’s intentions for those c. 1928 black-and-white landscape photos may have been to support his book, Elementary Principles of Landscape Painting, published February 1929. In the original edition, he begins his 30-page foreword: "I have found an urgent need for a book of this type, a kind of text-book on landscape painting; verily, a beginner's book: a technical, logical, pedagogical and intellectual treatise on these beginnings. In the hope of filling this need, I offer this book. It is not a book on art. It is a primer of painting. Whether or not I have succeeded in this endeavor is for the beginner to say."

Perhaps he used these snowy wintertime photos to help him crystallize theory for the reader. Almost certainly, the black-and-white photos are contact prints from glass plate negatives. Each image is exactly 3.25” x 2.25”, a size used only by a larger view camera. In a darkroom the glass plate negative was laid flat on photo-sensitive paper, placing the entire image in full contact with the paper. After controlled exposure to light, they would be developed in chemicals and the results were called contact prints. These were assembled by groups of eight images on an 8.5” x 11” sheet for easy reference. There are no enlarged images, which make me think that the small contact prints would serve his purpose. In these detail images, the titles are mine.

Unknown photographer

"Leaning Birches," Detail from Contact Sheet of Eight, c. 1928

Courtesy of Carlson family

In them we see winter landscapes, a nuanced range of grayscale values from whitest snow to deepest black shadows. With the light exposures bracketed (generally three exposures of brightness for each image), the best would be selected for their accuracy and resolution. No signature or written information is with the photos, suggesting they were working notes not slated for publication.

Unknown Photographer

Contact Sheet of Eight (With Horses and Boy), c. 1928

Courtesy of Carlson family

The little boy above is our uncle, Peter Worth Carlson, b. 1923, and perhaps six years old here. I calculated the date of the contact sheets based on his age.

Unknown Photographer

Contact Sheet of Eight (With Boulder), c. 1928

Courtesy of Carlson family

On those field trips JFC probably had a professional photographer with him, someone to handle a large view camera. No photos of the photographer exist, but there are portraits of JFC with easel and paintbox that could be used for publication—e.g. his biographical info at exhibitions or promotional work for Windsor & Newton art supplies and others. Bundled up in warmest winter clothes, although his hands went bare while painting, the photos remind me of the stories we grandchildren heard that “JFC never wore gloves, even in coldest weather.” Unbelievable! we all agreed. But he went ungloved when he worked so he wouldn't be clumsy handling his paints and brushes.

Published in 1929 by John F. Carlson

in Woodstock, N.Y

Copyrighted by

National Publishing Society

Printed by Vail-Ballou Press, Inc.

Binghamton, N.Y.

THE BOOK JFC's dedication in the first edition looks like this:



I dedicate this book with sincerest wishes

for your success.


Woodstock, New York,

April 19th, 1927

Although the unabridged original book is no longer in print, it is filled with long passages written in Victorian style prose—rich, poetic and intensely personal. His voice is emphatic, full of humor, strongly reasoned opinions, and a great compassion for pitfalls the student would inevitably encounter. He quotes Plato and considers Luther, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Galileo, Keats, and Lincoln, among others. He holds forth on science but elaborates like the Romantics. He quotes folk tales in the vernacular. Exclamation points abound! Yet all his references go to the challenging breadth and depth of mastering craft. “Art”, he cautions, may or may not emerge! The most perfect craftsmanship by itself does not equal a truly inspired work. Yet every tool of the craft must be in service to the artist’s vision. He promises the disciplined student: “You will surprise yourself with what you create.”

We are privy to JFC’s inner life, lessons learned, and his clear childhood memories of the Swedish countryside. When I traveled in Scandinavia c.1965, I saw landscape that looked surprisingly like Woodstock, N.Y. and suddenly JFC's chapter on memory took on new meaning for me — even at that young age. Chapter 1 lays out the framework: a detailed, illustrated “Theory of Angles and Consequent Values”. Values comprise the range of darks and lights within a grayscale, and black-and-white images make this clear in a way a color image cannot. He urges us to study the light source and intensity on each plane of the view before us: curved sky, flat ground, sloping mountains, vertical trees and buildings, each reflecting light differently, giving different weights in the composition. JFC declares: "Whether the theory is unimpeachable or not, it will help the student in ‘seeing simply'."

The remaining twelve chapters are just as thorough, discussing techniques for handling materials as well as design, perspective, color, line, mass, changing light, clouds and more — all essential elements that give oxygen to the main “idea” or “feeling” of a painting. [Quotes are JFC’s, and he uses them liberally.] The last chapter carries special emphasis—on memory work. He wants us to rigorously cultivate the use of memory, to retrieve only the “feeling” and pure inspiration born in those earliest days. The unfiltered, non-judgment of early childhood impressions emerge later in life as seminal truth: this is the source material for what a painter must discern in himself, and try to capture in a painting. It is emotion. He explains further: "In direct-from-nature painting, much useless lumber insinuates itself, interesting for its own sake, but derogatory to the whole. The eye is greedy. There is always too much material seen, with not enough synthesis.”

Leave so much useless lumber behind! Let only expressive essence be put down on canvas. This is the work of discernment.

The book was popular and several editions were printed before the Sterling Publishing Co., took it on in 1953. JFC's lengthy prose did not survive Sterling's editor(s) but they did add black-and- white photos of JFC's paintings.

Copyright 1953 by Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

215 East 37th Street, New York 16, N.Y.

Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting - Various editions

The new version completely omitted his dedication and his 30-page foreword, and a much slimmer book emerged for publication, re-titled Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting. JFC's ideas and message were preserved, but his personality and lush writing style were pruned to the bone.

Unknown photographer

John F. Carlson Resting with Easel and Paintbox, c. 1928

Courtesy of Carlson family

Today, 92 years after the 1929 edition, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting is still in print and selling well. Today's edition contains 90 illustrations: black-and-white photos and the original diagrams. In 1929, nobody could have foreseen how popular plein air painting would become, nor how popular the book would prove. I still hear it referred to as "the bible" for landscape painting, told to me by countless plein air painters, well known and beginner alike. JFC's reverence for nature does take on new poignance as we witness landscapes everywhere changing before our eyes.

603 views2 comments


Thanks for this post! Carlson's guide remains one of my go-to recommendations for students of painting. I've bought likely over 10 copies for people over the years. Please do write more! Personal accounts of artists of the past are very valuable to painters working today, not just for posterity but also process.



bottom of page