The Art

Adams is widely considered to have been Colorado’s finest landscape artist. He is best-known for his stunning views of snowy mountain peaks in early morning or sunset light, or wreathed in storm clouds, and for his luminous sunset and twilight paintings of the river bottoms near Denver. His works show an intensely personal and poetic response to the Colorado mountains and plains, with unusual sensitivity to the changing effects of light, atmosphere and season. His style is best characterized as broad, impressionistic and subjective.

A hallmark of Adams’ paintings is his ability to capture very fleeting lighting: the soft first pink light of sunrise on snow-capped peaks, the colors of sunset seen through cottonwood trees along the Platte River, the effect of the sun shining through swiftly-changing storm clouds or a summer shower. Although this lighting usually lasts for only a few minutes at most, he was able to catch it and preserve it.

Like most fine artists, Adams was keenly observant, and sensitive to his subject: noticing the way a strong wind turns up the silvery underside of willow leaves, how the morning sun falling on an October snow raises gentle rising mists above the snowline, how the lower branches of young cottonwood trees bend down toward the ground, and on and on.
All art enhances aspects of its subject, and de-emphasizes others. Adams enhanced his paintings primarily by the use of stronger colors than one would actually find in a photograph. The evening shadows are bluer, the spring grass is greener, the sunsets yellower or more strikingly orange–and occasionally he went too far with this! He sometimes used very small areas of intense blue or red to enliven a dark shadowed area such as the heart of a clump of willows or the dark base of an aspen tree. He also made the mountains look about twice as tall as they actually appear, as if seen through a telephoto lens.

Roughly half of Adams paintings are oils and half are watercolors. Although some of his watercolors are masterfully detailed and very carefully done, others are much less detailed, and must have been done very quickly for the tourist trade. As one watercolorist remarked about one of these, “That one must have taken him all of 15 minutes.”

Watercolors usually range in size from about 5″ x 7″ to 10″ x 12,” with a few as large as 16″ x 24″

Oils usually range in size from about 8″ x 10″ to 14″ x 20,” but a few are larger, ranging up to 40″ x 60.”

During most of his early and mid-career, Adams painted his oil Paintings “thick on thin.” The entire painting was painted with a fairly thin coat of paint, and then he painted over parts of it more thickly (“impasto”) for additional emphasis and texture in the clouds of colorful sunsets, mountain peaks, or with foreground shrubbery. From about 1922 and after, he often painted an entire painting in thick impasto. If you hold some Adams paintings up to a bright raking light, you can see distinct patterns of thick paint that have no relationship to the painted scene. This indicates that he had painted over a previous scene without first scraping off the thicker paint.

Most oils are on stretched canvas, but some smaller paintings are on a variety of composition boards, and in one case, a wooden door panel. Many smaller paintings must have been done on site, “plein air,” but most larger paintings (and some smaller ones) were undoubtedly done in his studio.

Adams also did many field sketches, mostly in pencil, some in ink. Most of these were very detailed, and some contained the names of colors to be used in studio paintings based on the sketch.

An example of a typical sketch

An example of a sketch in blue ink


sketch in pen and black ink with watercolor

Adams also did some pen and ink sketches which he sent as Christmas or New Year’s greeting cards, usually with a personal written greeting or dedication.

How did his painting style change over the years?

This is one of the most interesting questions that motivated me to begin the Catalog Raisonné documentation project. With an occasional exception, all the dated paintings I have seen are dated between 1889 and 1898. Very few of his paintings were dated after 1898 (I have only seen three, 1907, 1909 and 1927) and since he was actively painting during the next 40 years, roughly 80% of his paintings are undated.

While most Adams paintings are impressionist, they can vary from somewhat representational to nearly abstract. Does this variation simply indicate different moods or experimentation during the same time period, or do different styles reflect different “periods” in which he painted with particular styles? Or perhaps both?

While most paintings do not have any information accompanying them, occasionally a painting will have a firm record of when it was first purchased, and that forges another link in the chain of information and inference about how Adams’ art and signature changed over time.

Most consider that his finest paintings were completed between about 1894, or a bit later, and about 1920. However, since only some of his paintings are dated, and most of these are dated between 1890 and 1898, there is great uncertainty about the time that most of his best paintings were completed.

Before 1894 he was still experimenting and developing his style and technique, and most of these earlier paintings show many smaller brush strokes (perhaps four times as many as in a same-sized painting from his best years).

Sometime between 1920 and 1925, his technique became considerably “looser,” with fewer and broader brush strokes (perhaps half as many as in his best years), thicker paint, a greatly simplified palette, and the foregrounds of paintings often became much less detailed and less differentiated.

Above is a very late painting, which was probably “estate signed” by someone else after Adam’s death

Most of Adams’ paintings show Colorado in spring, summer or fall; there are only a few winter scenes, and many of these were painted in a short period of time in 1897 and 1898. Perhaps this is because many of his paintings were actually painted “plein air” on location–it must be hard to paint outside when it is cold.

Some of Adams’ earlier paintings include animals and people, but he was not very adept at painting these subjects, and they do not usually appear in paintings after about 1894. Most of his paintings after this time depict pristine landscapes, with no houses, people, or other evidence of human activity, except for an occasional dirt road. In fact, he is known to have deleted houses that were actually in scenes that he painted. Adams included birds in a few of his earlier works, and a few include a moon, but usually there is nothing to distract the viewer from the majesty and subtlety of his subject.

Throughout his career, Adams continually experimented with different treatments of the same subject. Though he must have created well over a hundred river-bottom sunsets, and over a hundred paintings of Moraine Park, and Longs and Meeker Peaks, no two are the same–a dependable sign of a truly fine artist.

How many paintings did Adams paint?

This is one of the many questions that I hope to eventually answer through my documentation of his paintings. Occasionally I find one which also has definite documentation on when it was purchased. I am also recording framing labels, and at some point I will review old phone books to determine the years that a given framing shop was open, as a way of bracketing the time when a painting was framed. At some point I may be able to make a firmer estimate of how many he painted in a certain time period, and then extrapolate to the rest of his career.

One art reference book states that Adams painted “in excess of 700 paintings,” and this figure has apparently been accepted and repeated by other references. However, I have no idea how this figure was arrived at, since Adams kept no notebooks or other records of his paintings, and I think that this figure is probably much too low.

I have already documented over 1,300 paintings, in the eighteen years of my Catalog Raisonné project, and I am documenting them at the rate of roughly 40 per year. Many of his watercolors were done very quickly, and some of them bear what appear to be inventory numbers on the back in a small box; the largest number I have seen is 525.

I think it is more likely that Adams painted at least 3,000 paintings, but that is still a wild guess, and that figure may still be low. Although undoubtedly many have been thrown out or lost to fire or other damage over the years (I know of several that were rescued from dumpsters—one twice), many still remain. They continue to turn up at estate/yard sales or attic discoveries