March 7, 2014

Painting the Light

"The Light at Leadbetter Beach" field study, 9X12, oil

I am forever encouraging my students to strive to achieve accurate tonal relationships within their paintings.  Often the tendency is to see too narrow a range of tones, making it impossible to achieve believable light.

Whenever the subject matter is in full light (rules change somewhat on a foggy or misty day) there is a full range on tones to deal with - miss the darks and the lights won't seem light enough.

There is a story about a little girl whose family always did large jigsaw puzzles on the kitchen table through the family holidays.  The little girl thought the dark pieces, with all their funny protrusions looked a lot like big ugly bugs, so she started hiding them - some behind the curtains, some underneath the ornaments, others under the sofa cushions.

As the puzzle progressed, family members began to notice that pieces were missing, and subsequently began to discover the small dark pieces in various places where the little girl had hidden them.  The small girl was initially a little distraught to see the pieces emerging, but as the puzzle slowly filled in she realized that the dark pieces made the rest of the puzzle make sense.

Not only is this a metaphor for life, but also for painting.  Without the dark, we can't see the light.

Let's take it a step further - without the darks in place, the painting won't really make sense.   It won't "read".

So we need to see the darks to paint the light.  And how do we see tonal relationships more accurately?  SQUINT, SQUINT, SQUINT.

And why does that work?  Because the rods and cones in the eye need a lot of light to see full color, and we tend to get color confused with value.  By squinting and reducing the amount of light entering the eye, we tend to see less color, and the tonal patterns become more easily observable.

You will discover that the darkest darks are pretty much always in the immediate foreground, with all of the tonal contrasts diminishing as the landscape moves away from the eye, and that vertical planes such as trees are almost always the darkest masses in the landscape - unless of course they are in the far distance.  

 But hey, you already knew that, right?   

Happy painting,


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