Oil painting on canvas depicting two wooden fisherboats in a slightly wavy ocean at night. The moon is breaking through the clouds, casting a dim light on the scene.

J. M. W. Turner, Fishermen at Sea, exhibited 1796, oil on canvas, © Tate, London.

Reader question: “How did Constable and Turner decide to emphasise the emotion in their landscapes?”

Well, that’s a great question, because Constable and Turner were of course all about emphasising emotion. Constable even once wrote that painting “is with me but another word for feeling”.

For those who don’t know (or need a refresher), John Constable and J. M. W. Turner were both British landscape painters, who were alive during around the same time (end of the 18th century to the beginning of 19th century), and who are both associated with the Romanticism movement. Although they were different in many ways—with Constable often taking a more serene and pastoral approach to nature, and Turner using turbulent scenes of nature to reflect social or philosophical concepts—they both used landscape painting as a primary way of creating emotional reactions in their viewers.

Romanticists are famous for the way they imbued the scenes they were painting with emotions and beautyand there were a few different ways Constable and Turner did that in their landscapes. Here are three that are easy to spot:

1. Brushstrokes

Oil painting on canvas depicting a coastal landscape. A small beach is visible next to a dark ocean. Dark clouds are rendered in the sky above using broad, visible brushstrokes in different shades of grey, with large downward strokes on the right hand sign possibly indicating rainfall.

John Constable, Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, c.1824, oil on canvas, Royal Academy of Arts, London.

When looking at the above scene by Constable, the violent, visible brushstrokes are probably the first thing you notice. They came about partly as a way for Constable to experiment with portraying atmospheric effects in his works, but also as a way for him to evoke feelings in the viewer that could range from feelings of turbulence, awe, fear, and even grief.

Oil painting on canvas depicting an old fashioned steam boat in a turbulent ocean. The large waves are depicted with rapid, visible brushstrokes that blend into the sky to make it feel like the ship is completely enveloped. An orange fire can be seen on the ship with steam or smoke rising from it.

J. M. W. Turner, Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, c.1842, oil on canvas, © Tate, London.

Similarly, Turner is famous for how he used visible brushstrokes to convey the vivid emotions of his scenes, such as Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) above. Turner really wanted to convey what this experience actually felt like. An inscription on the painting reads: “The Author was in this Storm on the Night the “Ariel” left Harwich”, indicating that the artist might have actually experienced this event (or something similar) in real life. He used brushstrokes to convey the power of nature and the feelings of experiencing a storm like this.

2. Colours

Oil painting on canvas depicting a city landscape, with a tower rising up on the left hand side, rendered completely in white and grey tones except for a bright red and orange sunrise in the centre of the painting, rising up above the houses.

J. M. W. Turner, Venice at Sunrise from the Hotel Europa, with Campanile of San Marco, c.1842, oil on canvas, © Tate, London.

Just like brushstrokes, both artists used colour in different ways to evoke emotional aspects of the scene. Take, for example, Turner’s Venice at Sunrise from the Hotel Europa, with Campanile of San Marco (1842), in which the only colours in a sea of white and grey are the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellow of the sunrise, drawing our attention completely to the vivid emotional core of the work. The colours here were not chosen to be a realistic or objective portrayal of this scene, but rather to emphasise the emotions that the artist wants us to feel when we look at this sunrise.

Oil painting on canvas depicting a wooden boat sitting on wooden logs in a pastoral countryside landscape next to a lake. A man sits on a stool next to the boat and works on something in his lap.

John Constable, Boat-building near Flatford Mill, c.1815, oil on canvas, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

You can also look at Constable’s Boat-building near Flatford Mill (1815), which uses colour to evoke emotion in a different way. Here, the golden hue of the scene imbues the scene with a nostalgic, warm glow. Constable’s works often focused on the English countryside, and a harmonious and pleasant relationship between man and nature.

3. The sublime

Rather than just emphasising emotion, Romanticists also wanted to create images of nature that were immediately striking and awe-inspiring to the viewer. In doing so, they evoked a very specific emotion: “the sublime”. This is a concept in Romantic landscape painting, and basically means that you feel a sense of awe when you look at a landscape: that is, terror and beauty at the same time. Think of the feeling you might get when you look up at a vast, starry sky: it’s incredibly beautiful, but also makes you feel tiny and overwhelmed by its size and majesty.

One of the most common visual shorthands that Romanticists used to convey this feeling was the inclusion of tiny people in front of a vast landscape. The viewer is supposed to project themselves onto these people, and it also serves as a way to make us realise how big the landscape in front of us actually is.

Oil painting on canvas depicting a coastal landscape with a rocky beach in the foreground and green rollicking hills in the background. A person dressed in white can be seen walking along the beach in the distance. Large clouds, slightly dark due to the setting sun, rise up across the sky.

John Constable, Weymouth Bay: Bowleaze Cove and Jordon Hill, c.1816, oil on canvas, © National Gallery, London.

While Constable didn’t make use of the sublime as often or as obviously as Turner did, this doesn’t mean that he didn’t make use of it at all. Take the above work, Weymouth Bay (c. 1816), in which a tiny person can be seen walking along an abandoned coastal landscape. The large, imposing clouds are the main feature of the painting—in front of such a small person, they become even more impressive, bringing with them that classic sublime mix of beauty and terror.

Oil painting on canvas depicting a landscape of vast, rollicking green hills with smatterings of trees and a castle in the distance. The horizon disappears into mist, and clouds rise up on the left hand side of the sky. Several men on horses can be seen riding across the hills in the foreground with a pack of hunting dogs running in front of them.

J. M. W. Turner, Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington, c.1842, oil on canvas, © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

You can probably already see from the works above how Turner used the sublime by emphasising the vastness of his landscapes, and the strength of the natural elements. This is probably easiest to recognise in his turbulent seascapes. But even in his more peaceful or pastoral landscapes, like Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington above, you can still see how the sublime is used: the tiny human figures are dotted against an extremely vast and almost wild landscape, with the large and darkening clouds in the sky lending a hint of turbulence to what might otherwise have been a simple and serene scene.

Those are just a few simple things to look out for when analysing why these artists’ landscape make us feel certain things when we look at them. Remember: it’s all part of the Romanticism movement they were part of—finding and emphasising the emotions imbued in the world around us.