Catching Light in Your Paintings
By Charles Sovek
North Light - October, 1984
Instead of painting the objects in a scene, concentrate on the light which reflects from those objects and everything around them
A painter friend once wisely told me that it's important to think of everything as a reflector of light. When we apply this axiom to landscapes it is apparent that the sun and surrounding sky, indeed, give a scene many different color arrangements, not only daily but seasonally as well.
Water is the most obvious reflector of light in nature and a study of its light-reflecting qualities can prove endless. However, other surfaces also reflect light. Study the landscape in Low Tide. Notice how the normally drab patches of mud, exposed at low tide, take on a shimmering character. Though these pas-sages are not as light-reflective as the water, their moist, glossy surfaces can appear quite bright.
Less obvious, though equally important, is the treatment of the flatter matte surfaces of foliage. Observe the light side of the trees in Boats on the Saugatuck. Here I've mixed some of the warm sky color into the greens to identify the color of the sky and to give the trees a sense of belonging to the overall color arrangement. Corot once said the sky should be thought of as the dominant force when painting a landscape. When I painted both of these pictures I took Corot's advice and started by first establishing a few random notes of sky color to help me judge the other colors more truly.
Skies are fascinating subjects to paint, with subtleties of color and value that will tax every bit of ingenuity you have as a painter. Working on location is the only way I know of really learning to understand skies and their light-reflecting influences on a scene.
Even if you're a dyed-in-the-wool studio painter, spend an hour or so each week in painting outdoors. It will do wonders for your indoor compositions. Go outdoors occasionally and try your hand at painting a sky. I'm sure you'll be impressed with the wonderful reflective possibilities in the world above us.
Low Tide 12" x l6" oil on Masonite.
I couldn't resist featuring the dramatic cloud formations moving across the sky the evening I painted this picture. Because clouds change so quickly, it's impossible to do a detailed portrait of any one effect. To solve this dilemma, I usually paint, from memory, the effect that first impressed me. Notice how the color of the sky is reflected onto the wet mud and water. Although the image appears nearly mirrorlike, the values of the river are pitched slightly darker to accentuate the lightness of the sky.
Boats on the Saugatuck 12"x16" oil on Masonite.
The River Gallery, Westport, Connecticut.
After painting a so-so picture earlier in the day, I made a second trek to the nearby Saugatuck River in hopes of being more successful. The sun was fading fast, giving me about an hour and a half of painting time. After broadly laying-in the important masses I quickly indicated whatever details I felt were appropriate and called it a day. I think this picture works fairly well, probably because I didn't have time to "think it out". Instead, I painted what I saw as quickly as possible.
Warm afternoon sunlight
Moviemakers like to call the late afternoon light "magic time" I call it the best time of the day to paint. Why? Because, to me, the light at this time of day is at its most poetic position. While tints ranging from pink to orange reveal light-struck passages, luminous purples and blues, reflected from the sky, dance in the shadows. The cinematographers are right: Even a depressing slum can take on an inviting, never-never-land quality.
Another bonus of late afternoon light is the fascinating shadow patterns caused by the low position of the sun. While interesting shadows can also occur in early morning, it's only in the late afternoon that the unbeatable combination of long, revealing shadows and warm, luminous color merge to create the most intriguing effects.
The Impressionists were probably the first artists to take advantage of this magical time of day. Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla devoted practically his entire life to chasing after these effects.
Evelyn's Dock 11"x14" oil on Masonite.
Collecton of Mrs. lean Zallinger, North Haven, Connecticut.
The last warm rays of the sun were fading fast when I painted this picture. Despite the rapid execution (the picture was completed in less than an hour), I took great care in trying to accurately record the subtle warm and cool variations of color in the scene. My palette included white, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow pale, sap green, cerulean blue, ultramarine and alizarin crimson.