Arts & Tradition

Successfully Navigating the Art of Landscape Painting

How Jake Gaedtke captures America's great outdoors
BY Lorraine Ferrier TIMEMarch 16, 2023 PRINT

Montana-based landscape painter Jake Gaedtke’s first art museum visit astounded him, leaving him with a lifelong impression and a dream to fulfill. He can’t recall the paintings, but he can remember their impact on his second-grade self as if it were yesterday. Walking with his class around the Detroit Institute of Art, a group of large vertical figure paintings stopped him in his tracks. “My mouth must have been wide open looking at these paintings,” he said by telephone. To an awe-struck young Gaedtke, it seemed like those paintings were 10-feet tall. “I’d love to make those paintings,” he thought, as he tried to imagine what it would be like to be able to. He was so taken aback by the art that he lost track of time—and his classmates.

From that visit, he knew had to be an artist.

Jake Gaedtke
Landscape painter Jake Gaedtke painting in the Grand Canyon. (Courtesy of Jake Gaedtke)

His parents encouraged and supported him in pursuing his dream. At that time, Gaedtke loved drawing, and he recalls spending many an afternoon drawing with a friend and learning a lot from self-taught artist John Gnagy’s television series “Learn to Draw.” The show aired at dinnertime, and Gaedtke’s mom allowed him to eat in the living room to watch the 15-minute show. His brothers weren’t impressed, but his mom insisted: “Your brother is learning, leave him be.” Gaedtke found Gnagy’s short step-by-step instructions invaluable, such as how to use circles, squares, and triangles to create forms.

During his high school years, Gaedtke made great progress in his art. His art teacher, a young hippie and barely out of college, taught classes in drawing, painting, and art history with such enthusiasm and passion that Gaedtke couldn’t help but be inspired. He liked that his teacher didn’t emphasize one art era. He taught everything from classical art up to the then-recent pop art. “And that had a huge, huge, influence on me when I was in high school, and really he tried to just stoke those fires [in] me to really want to be an artist,” Gaedtke said.

At around 16 years old, he passed the entry test for the “Famous Artists Course for Talented Young People,” a two-year commercial art and illustration correspondence course, founded by members of the New York Society of Illustrators, principally Albert Dorne and Norman Rockwell. It cost $500. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! We can’t afford that.’ But my dad found a way,” Gaedtke said. His art skills grew from the illustrators’ lessons and their feedback on his assignments, bringing him closer to his dream of becoming an artist.

Jake Gaedtke
American landscape painter Jake Gaedtke has traveled the country, sketching and painting field studies from the coasts to the deserts to the mountains. He uses these plein air works to create paintings in his studio that capture the wonders of the natural world, such as “Sky’s the Limit,” 2020. Oil on canvas; 24 inches by 18 inches.  (Jake Gaedtke)

Staying True to Realist Art

Compared to his high school years, Gaedtke found college disappointing. In the early 1970s, he studied fine art at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, leaving after a year to enlist in the Air Force. Gaedtke spent four years serving his country, and then studied art at the University of Southern Colorado–Pueblo (now Colorado State University). In both instances, the college art departments focused on modern art. Lecturers didn’t teach the skills of drawing and painting; instead, they encouraged students to express themselves. Modern art and abstract art never appealed to him: “I wanted to learn to be a real artist.”

After leaving college, he settled in the mountains of Colorado and mainly focused on figure paintings. His passion for realist painting remained strong, and for decades he continued to paint and develop his art practice alone, taking art courses here and there. One of those classes forever changed his art.

Jake Gaedtke
“Narrow Passage,” 2021, by Jake Gaedtke. Oil on canvas; 20 inches by 30 inches. (Jake Gaedtke)
Jake Gaedtke
“A Winter’s Creek,” 2020, by Jake Gaedtke. Oil on canvas; 20 inches by 16 inches. (Jake Gaedtke)
Jake Gaedtke
“Winter Slumber,” 2021, by Jake Gaedtke. Oil on canvas; 12 inches by 12 inches. (Jake Gaedtke)

The Quest to Capture Landscapes

Throughout his life, Gaedtke has had a heartfelt appreciation for the great outdoors, embarking on many hiking, fishing, and camping adventures. He’d always wanted to capture the land on canvas. “The beauty I saw in the outdoors just seemed so compelling to me. … I really wanted to express that, but I didn’t know where to start or how to do it,” he said.

He signed up for workshops at the local art academy, one of which was the plein air painting class of the landscape artist Jay Moore. “I just immediately fell in love with it,” he said. When he first started plein air painting, he struggled with it. He’d get so frustrated that he’d throw his paintings like Frisbees against the rocks. “I never thought I’d get it. But you stick with it, and eventually things start to make sense.”

Jake Gaedtke
Landscape painter Jake Gaedtke understands nature well, having spent countless hours observing the light and painting the great American outdoors. (Courtesy of Jake Gaedtke)

In 2002, Gaedtke started Moore’s new mentorship program for aspiring professional landscape artists. It was fast-paced and grueling. “He was trying to put me through the paces of what it takes to be a professional, how hard you have to work,” he said.

Moore trained him in how to paint landscapes and also in the reality of being a professional artist—how you’d have to work every day on both the business and the painting. Every two weeks, Gaedtke had an assignment on any number of subjects including drawing, painting, and art history, or business and mental awareness. Every day, Gaedtke spent between 12 and 14 hours completing each one.

Jake Gaedtke
“Frozen in Time,” 2021, by Jake Gaedtke. Oil on canvas; 16 inches by 16 inches. (Jake Gaedtke)

One of the challenges of painting outdoors, Gaedtke explained, is that there’s so much to see in a landscape that it becomes overwhelming. Moore taught him how to find the focal point for the painting by breaking the scene down into simplistic forms and shapes, and learning the values (the darks and lights) in the scene’s composition. Moore first limited Gaedtke’s palette to black, white, and gray, using values to describe the forms.

Jake Gaedtke
“Flowing Stillness,” 2019, by Jake Gaedtke. Oil on canvas; 16 inches by 20 inches. (Jake Gaedtke)

Once Gaedtke understood the values, Moore directed him to introduce color and taught him how to mix landscape colors. This methodical process of learning to paint in monochrome and then in color is similar to how the old masters learned figure painting in their academy apprenticeships.

And of course, understanding nature was of utmost importance. Gaedtke spent a lot of time outside observing sunlight, how the light behaved in nature, and how to express it in paint. From then on, he became a landscape artist with a particular love for painting water, snow, and nocturnal scenes.

Jake Gaedtke
A study for “Winter Dreamland,” 2020, by Jake Gaedtke. Oil on canvas; 10 inches by 8 inches. (Jake Gaedtke)
Jake Gaedtke
“Winter Dreamland,” 2021, by Jake Gaedtke. Oil on canvas; 30 inches by 24 inches. (Jake Gaedtke)

Calm Snow From Sunlight to Moonlight

Although mountain winters can be ferocious, Gaedtke finds the season calming. “I don’t think anything soothes me like a beautiful snowy day with no wind,” he said. Needless to say, Gaedtke loves painting snow. One of his favorite paintings, “Midnight Shadows” recently won first place in the Landscape category of the 16th International Art Renewal Center Salon Competition. He loves how, in the moonlit hours, the trail walkers’ footprints and the cross-country skiers’ tracks in the crisp snow reveal the busy day.

Art Renewal Center
This year, Jake Gaedtke won first place in the Landscape category of the 16th Art Renewal Center Salon Competition with his 2021 painting “Midnight Shadows.” Oil on linen; 26 inches by 32 inches. (Courtesy of the Art Renewal Center)

Gaedtke stumbled across the scene during an afternoon dog walk on the Sourdough Trail near his home in Bozeman, Montana. He saw how the aspen trees cast incredible shadows, creating abstract shapes across the snow-covered trail. Stopping dead in his tracks, he instantly visualized a painting, not of the sunlit scene before him but a moonlit one.

He tied up his dog and took a few compositional photographs of the scene. “The photograph helps you with drawing shapes and such, but when it comes to color and values you can’t rely on them that much. You really have to use your plein air references for more accuracy in that regard,” Gaedtke explained.

Having painted over 100 plein air evening paintings, Gaedtke understands night color and how the evening light falls. He applied that knowledge when converting the daylight scene to night for “Midnight Shadows.”

Jake Gaedtke
A study for “Midnight Shadows,” 2021, by Jake Gaedtke. Oil on canvas; 11 inches by 14 inches. (Jake Gaedtke)

He first made a small version of the painting, solving problems with the colors and composition, before confidently painting the larger work. Painting at his easel, Gaedtke makes hundreds of decisions, such as what type of brushstroke to use and what colors to mix, to name a couple. He likens the process to a constant dialogue between himself and the painting. He’ll often step back from the piece, asking what it needs next.

Walking his dog on the same trail, some 20 yards from the scene of “Midnight Shadows,” Gaedtke happened upon another scene—the subject of his painting “Guiding Light.” “Through the shadows, through the darkness, you’ve got these little spots of light that guide you right through that trail and that path,” he said. Although, again, he could see that it would make a great nocturnal scene, he wanted to create something different. So for “Guiding Light,” he painted a daytime scene in a vertical composition, focusing on the cottonwood, which guides the viewer into the painting.

Jake Gaedtke
“Guiding Light,” 2023, by Jake Gaedtke. Oil on linen; 27 inches by 20 inches. (Jake Gaedtke)

“I want the viewer to walk into the painting, like they’re actually there—and they want to be there, quietly feeling the crunch of the snow under him or her,” he said.

Fufilling Dreams

Gaedtke has fulfilled his dream to be an artist, creating fine paintings. As a second grader, he couldn’t imagine how he’d be able to create them. But through sheer hard work, constant curiosity, and love for his art, he sought out the right people to learn from.

For years, he has taught classes and taken private students under his wing in his studio. “It’s great to share everything that you’ve learned and be able to pass it along to others.”

He still refers back to the “Famous Artists Course for Talented Young Artists” materials and also uses them when he teaches classes and private students. He suggests that aspiring artists take workshops from artists they admire, rather than trendy artists—and for them to work hard, go after what they want to learn, and not get discouraged. For aspiring landscape painters, he tells them to paint in the great outdoors and learn directly from nature’s truth.

To find out more about landscape painter Jake Gaedtke, visit

Jake Gaedtke
“Winter Tracks,” 2020, by Jake Gaedtke. Oil on canvas; 14 inches by 28 inches. (Jake Gaedtke)
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Lorraine Ferrier writes about fine arts and craftsmanship for The Epoch Times. She focuses on artists and artisans, primarily in North America and Europe, who imbue their works with beauty and traditional values. She's especially interested in giving a voice to the rare and lesser-known arts and crafts, in the hope that we can preserve our traditional art heritage. She lives and writes in a London suburb, in England.
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