10 Contemporary Artists Painting Dreamlike, Fantastical Landscapes


Representing a three-dimensional landscape on a two-dimensional surface like canvas is always a give-and-take between the real and imaginary. But landscape painters who step into fantastical terrain have all the more choices to make when it comes to achieving that balance. A more experimental approach to their subject matter allows painters to showcase their formal abilities, as well as an unexpected, surprising worldview.

By stretching reality’s colors and forms, these artists allow us to navigate imagined spaces that both beckon and resist human contact, while also suggesting a radical reengagement with our own environment. Such work acquires special resonance today, as the landscape itself becomes increasingly mercurial—whether by smoke pollution from wildfires unleashing alien, orange skies in the U.S., or carbon emissions driving a feedback loop of extreme weather worldwide. In the case of these contemporary painters, however, the drastic changes to the environment are confined to the canvas.

Living and working in central Massachusetts, John McAllister spends 20 hours a week riding his bike in the great outdoors. Nevertheless, this close proximity to nature doesn’t directly shape the elysian scenes he creates. “I spend a lot of time [outdoors] but never think about how it will become a painting because I know that it will be filed away in the subconscious for spontaneous use,” he said. “Imagined elements weigh much heavier in the conscious part of my mind.”

Those intangible elements—varying intensities of oranges, reds, and purples—are what define McAllister’s unmistakable palette and style, while he sees subject matter as secondary. “Foliage, land, and water are there as a structure for light and color to perform upon,” he said. As in the playful linguistic meter he frequently uses in titling works (like serenest surrounds abounds, 2022) and shows (“riot rose summery,” 2016; or “some rhapsodies radiant,” 2021), the compositions are a framework in which to achieve maximum jubilation.