Catching Light in Your Paintings
North Light - October, 1984
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The negative side of afternoon light is the speed with which it moves. One of the most frustrating things about painting this time of day is seeing the light grow ever more beautiful as the sun dips toward the horizon. Trial and error have taught me to allow no more than two hours maximum for a particular effect. If a painting is started earlier, the light is cooler and less interesting. Some artists, however, do start early and intentionally pitch their colors warmer, counting on the sun to warm up later in the day. I've always found this risky business, but if you can pull it off without losing the effect, by all means do it.
Another way around this predicament is to paint small, twenty- or thirty-minute studies only and go after the essentials. For me, catching the light at this time of day is an end in itself. You, on the other hand, may choose to do a more finished composition in your studio using small paint studies as reference. Either way, location work is indispensable.
Splish Splash 20"x24" oil on canvas.
The Douglas Gallery, Stamford, Connecticut.
This picture was painted from a photograph, and though the figure in the painting appears to be a child, my model was really a middle-aged woman. I'll often change a figure's age or appearance to suit my compo sitional needs. In this case I felt the warm afternoon light shining on a child conveyed the mood I was after far better than depicting a light-struck adult. Remember your paintings are seldom judged by how accurately you copy a subject, rather, it's the qualities of light, mood and expressiveness that make a picture count.
Expressiveness is the bottom line not only in color but in all other art forms as well. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most difficult aspects of art to teach. My experience has been that no matter what kind of color sense an artist possesses, if the treatment of the subject is expressive, the painting will usually possess some degree of quality. Because no two individuals "see" color identically, it's impossible to set up any preconceived standards of taste. How, then, do you, as an artist, best impart your particular color gifts to a painting? The answer is to stress your strong points, work on your weak ones and paint with confidence.
Let's say you're essentially a value painter who takes much more delight in modeling the subtle tonal planes of an object's surface than in pursuing some innovative color effect that stresses shapes and patterns. My advice is to use a simple five- or six-color palette, even premixing the colors into different gradations of values. By so doing, you'll relieve yourself of the double responsibility of worrying about both color and value. Granted, you may not achieve the lightness and airiness of color inherent in a painting by Monet, but you will be able to fashion a perfectly adequate color arrangement which can effectively complement your preference for a sophisticated value treatment.
John Singer Sargent was not a profound colorist, but his values are so sensitively modeled that one is seldom aware of any lack in color expressiveness. If your forte is color, you may choose to underplay values in favor of striking color effects, perhaps using broken color applied in small bright daubs. Alfred Sisley is a good example of a strong colorist who stressed his assets by modeling his forms with color changes rather than value differences.
Whichever way you choose, you'll be further ahead by building a style based on your strong points, which in turn fortifies your confidence. Now the only stumbling block holding you back is the degree of expressiveness with which you apply color and paint.
Saturday Morning 24"x 28" oil on canvas.
Collection of the artist.
This large painting was completed in one intense three hour session. Sunlight was shining through the window at just the right angle and I wasted no time in trying to catch its unique effect. A limited palette was used including white, alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow pale and ultramarine. Most of the greys were made from mixtures of bumt sienna, ultramarine and white. The floor, lamp and table were all mixed from variations of burnt sienna, alizarin crimson, ultramarine and white.
At this point a delicate balance needs to be exercised, with confidence on one side and humility on the other. Too much confidence can reduce your work to a facile performance void of your true feelings about the subject. Too much humility, on the other hand, can tend to freeze your gut reactions, resulting in the subject overwhelming you to the point of reducing your picture to an impersonal statement of facts. It's up to each individual artist to find his own balance, and the best way to do that is to paint a lot of pictures.
Color expressiveness, however, shouldn't be thought of as a consistent trait. There are painting sessions when I feel I hover maddeningly close to success, then during the last minutes of completion, the result turns sour. Other times I feel a picture building up in more or less mediocre fashion and suddenly, after putting in a few final intuitive touches, end with a real jewel. Finally, there are those dreamy days when my brush seems to have wings. From the first stroke to the last, with feeling and accuracy, I record just how I felt about the subject.
It's these days, few though they may be, that make painting worthwhile. And it's for times like these that Id like to reassure you not to get discouraged. Paint confidently, humbly, and as expressively as you know how, and as sure as there are caps on paint tubes, you'll eventually be painting your share of winners.