Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A little trick for showing objects in bright sunlight.

images courtesy of

Here is a Sargent watercolor that shows an interesting effect. I have pointed this out before, but I want to dig a little deeper in to it. I was teaching the workshop this past weekend and we had lots of bright sunlight. I was telling the workshop participants about this idea and since it is fresh in my mind I will tell you about it too. Tonight I want to show some artists representing the brightest sunlight. The idea I want to mention is


When an object takes enormous amounts of sunlight the color is "blown out", that is the light side of the object becomes more the color of the light than its local color. But you can still tell the color story of the object by using the local color to form the shadow. Sargent is using that effect in the watercolor above.

This wonderfully tactile and mysterious Sargent of the floor of a Venetian church shows him using the same device. The light obliterates everything in the center of the painting. As the stones of the floor turn into shadow, their color is revealed. Sargent does this up in the top middle of the painting also, ,see that blast of light from the window hitting there? As the wall recedes to the right , the color in it appears. Notice too how Sargent has linked almost all of the darks in this painting into one great decorative unit of interesting and varied shapes.

Above is a Sargent portrait . I could have used a number of his portraits as an example but this is one I don't think I have seen many times. Look at her breast and neck area, the light is so bright that almost all of the detail disappears into the glare. Over to the right of her neck Sargent shows the local color of her skin and tells that part of the story.

Here is Sorolla doing the same thing. Look at the light on the ground around this figure. Where the light hits. there is nearly pure white paint, Sorolla uses the shadow to tell us what color the ground actually is. The lights are telling the story of the light, and the shadows the story of the color.The next time you are out in the brightest sunlight painting, try this. It allows you to still go for the value and not worry about keeping the color in an object which might prevent you from getting to the highest values. Knowing you can cheat the color into the shadow will allow you to go for the glare of the highest lights.


Walter L. Mosley said...

Thank you so much for explaining it this way, great, I appreciate it. Also of course thanks for posting about my favorite artist, and perhaps second favorite. I'm trying to develop form in the model and push my values up so this is added ammunition to my attempt at that, again thanks. Also, want to comment about the watercolor at top, it is so wonderful and audacious I think. Sargent really pushes the warm / cool contrast to its utmost extreme don't you think, it comes off so wonderfully, but to do it I think really takes a certain boldness or as I say audacity. I think I intend to copy some of Sargent's landscapes where he does this so I can learn more and adopt it myself. Of course Sargent always said he was just following nature and trying to forget about the masters and other painters (but can you trust what he says?). Also his use of the wax relief technique is used to such great effect in the watercolor. It's really amazing that he put down those blue violets and then went over it with wax and then put warm washes over that, I believe that is how he did it by looking at the painting but it almost defies figuring out doesn't it? Any insight into that would be welcome. I found last week at the Met a book that shows details of Sargent's watercolors and goes a little bit into technique. The book is titled, American Drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Volume 3, I've yet to buy it. Also, since they are doing renovation to the American wing, they are juggling paintings around in the glass cases. Aside from wonderful Innesses and Bierstadt and Gifford landscapes to mention a few that are there now, you can see Madame X and Lady with a Rose up close in very proximity. Usually the paintings are very high up on the wall and you can't really study them, but now that they are in the glass case you can study them really up close. They have been juggling the paintings around so who knows how long they will remain like that. Finally, one last thing about Sargent, starting in October there is going to be an exhibit at the Met called American Stories which will have a Venice street scene (with man and woman in doorway) by Sargent.

Walter L. Mosley said...

Yes the grass in the sunlight he paints yellow and the shadows reveal the local color, obviously green. Thanks for making me aware of this little secret, that is great, thank you.

Gregory Becker said...

This is an area of great interest for me Stape. I puzzle over it constantly. When I draw I am acutely aware that you cant just call things light and dark and leave it at that. Contrast effects are fascinating such as a rising sun behind trees growing in intensity blowing out the edges of trees to almost make them disappear. When drawing I am thinking about local light and local dark advancing and retreating in contrast creating lost and found edges. It's quite marvelous.
The way you've explained this effect in painting makes me think that I am thinking about painting when I am drawing and should be thinking about drawing when painting.
I love the effects of light and I know I will spend most of my life studying the subject.
Thanks for the ever increasing inspiration.

willek said...

Boy, have I ever wrestled with this. In a way, it is kind of what happens in a photograph where the intense lights burn out to white. I have noticed that some interpreters of reality will increase chroma rather than value to get this hard struck effect. But I have found that difficult as the ability to keep the relationship between light and shadow is reduced, it seems. I imagine adding too much white to get the sun struck areas of color would be dead wrong here and that the color of the light has to be used and it should be high chroma, high value, and hot. I really appreciate that you have presented this in this way, it really gives us something of substance to ruminate on.

Philip Koch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy Elder said...

This kind of reminds me of what photographs do. The lights are blown out because the eye (or camera) can only register so many shades of value at once. Do you see this in much older work, or do you think this effect started coming into practice the same time that photography came about?

Judy P. said...

Splendid stuff about capturing that brilliance of light- I have a painting I am working on right now with that very goal in mind, so I hope I am able to digest and render this info properly.
Mary Rose Pettis was at the Stillwater Art Crawl this summer, but I just missed meeting her. I'm only 30 minutes away, but since I started painting I've never visited so often-there's good art and helpful conversation there. Unfortunately the Crawl was light on art patrons - must be the economy.
It's neat to know you walked these streets too, but I'll bet you'd find traffic much worse now!

JAMES A. COOK said...

I am a draftsman by day and painter at night. During my 1 hr lunch break I set up my easel and threw hamber chunks at my canvas and practied what I read on your daily blog this morning . I didn't know of this before about the light. I was amazed at what I was painting . I found out that in my shadows where differn't notes of local color. This made my shadows look as if there was something going on in there. It wasn't just one value of color.This made my shadows more real looking.
All of this I discovered in 30 minutes of painting.
Thanks STAPE.

Philip Koch said...

Good discussion Stape. Light is the most wonderful creature isn't it. I like your phrase "blown out" to describe what happens to color in the very brightest highlights. (I re-read my earlier post and realized my foggy early morning brain had typed the wrong word where I meant to write "blown"- oh well...)

willek said...

Just to revisit this. Somewhere I read.. You can paint the color or you can paint the light, but you can't paint the color and the light. I think this pertains to that. The statement has always puzzled me.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you;
I think you know more about watercolor technique than I do. I am not able to add anything about a wax resist system of Sargent. I suppose it must have served the purpose of masking fluid or friskit.
I think Sargent mad a bunch of aesthetic decisions before nature. I think he more expressed it in a beautiful way rather than copied it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you.I assume you know about halation and diffraction which is what blows out the edges of those trees.

Stapleton Kearns said...

At the end of the 19th century there was a group of academic painters practicing what was then called the glare aesthetic where they did blow all of the color out of the lights. I think it is better to get the value and hope for the color rather than the other way around,

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have supposed that to some extent it was always known. However I think photography really brought artists eyes to the phenomenon.I think its use became common as photgraphy began to be common.

Stapleton Kearns said...

actually my time in that are centered across the river in Taylors Falls Wisconsin. I think that was the name of the town.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Painting during your lunch hour. Thats devotion.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think it is a photographers word,but it applies in painting too.
I was wondering who deleted their post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am not sure if I buy that, although in very bright conditions it is true.
Go for the value if you can inject the color into that,good, if not, the value is the one to choose.

Philip Koch said...

My old teacher James McGarrell used to say "get the tones right and then any darned color will do." Of course its an oversimplification, but nonetheless it makes a very good point. McGarrell, himself a surrealist painter, is no slouch with color. said...

Hello All,
Thank you Stapleton..again, good information to digest when I am out in the landscape glare along with massing my darks. I agree that value is the most important note to hit but I have actually tried the "get the value right and any color will do". Being a colorist and all, I couldn't help but take that challenge.
And guess what? That doesn't really work! Try it. No easy answers or rules, only helpful clues on how to reveal your visual world.

Deb said...

I am going to try the trick - have already had a chance to use it in a small watercolor sketch I did on the plane during our flight to Utah.
(Utah is beautiful, by the way, and these western mountains are turning golden from the aspens, clear blue skies, and lots of red and ochre rocks and dirt - a paradise, in other words)

Walter L. Mosley said...

Second thought, I think Sargent put the wax early in the dark brown bush area, painted the dark golden brown washes, removed the wax, and painted violet over where the wax had been and alternately some goldens where the wax had been, but purely speculation. I was thinking the paler colors would have come first but with that wax relief technique, that is not necessarily so.