Monday, June 29, 2009

Obtaining light in your paintings

John Singer Sargent, image from art renewal .org

Last night I talked about using your values to get light in your painting. Values are the most important driver of light in a painting . The next way to get more light is with color. The trick is to paint your lights a different color than your shadows. I know what you are thinking, you already knew that. But you didn't. Here's what I mean.

Its going to take a larger palette than the three color palettes that are popular in some circles today. You will need a warm and a cool of each color, as I outlined the other day and elsewhere in this blog. Like here.

Imagine if you are painting a red barn on a sunlit day. One side is in the light and the other is in the shadow. If you paint the light side with cadmium red and white, don't paint the shadow side with cadmium red, and ultramarine, use a different color, like alizirin or indian red and ultramarine. See what I mean? It sounds simple when I say paint the lights and shadows a different color, but I mean that you should actually use a different pigment.

Imagine painting a yellow house this time. Say, you painted the light side with cadmium yellow, if you paint the shadow side with cadmium yellow plus a violet, you have included the color cadmium yellow in both the light and the shadow. Instead you might use ------------ yellow ochre plus your violet. That's using a different color in the shadow than the light.

Now it isn't always possible to use this ploy, however sometimes it works very well. But you can't do it on a three color palette. That is one of the reasons why I have a broader palette.

Look for a moment at the Sargent above. The lights are painted in a high key, almost white to get glare. Where there is color though, there is an orange- yellow ocher color. The shadows are painted that powerful blue. Blue is the compliment of the color of the lights. You can usually expect the color of the shadow to be rooted in the compliment of the light. In the studio you might have a cool blue light and hot orange shadows.

Sargent has kept his shadows a lot lower in value than his lights. This huge spread in the values from the light to the shadow gives a very bright look. We judge everything within a painting by the way it looks compared to everything else. If we were to lighten those blue shadows, reducing the contrast between them and the lights, the sunlit look would lessen.

Here's another Sargent, this time its a watercolor. Take a look at that statue over on the right. the light hits it from the right and it is a white glare, like our first example above. The shadow edge is blue as the form turns out of the light. The reflected light is hot, and it is as bright as it can be made without destroying the illusion of the form. Notice also the super darks in that railing at 4 o'clock. That deep accent propels the illusion of light even more. There's that comparison thing going on again. The lights won't look light unless the shadows are deep. Both this picture and the one at the t0p of the page are painted to give the most extreme possible light.


Unknown said...

great stuff... that first painting is amazing.. you almost want to put on your sunglasses because you can feel that intense sunlight.
I have within the last year started using a palette similar to what you've described,(warm and cool version of each color). In doing this, I'm making more conscious choices about the temperature of the colors I use in mixing either light or shadow colors. Simple thing, like you said, but it does make a huge difference. And its not a random search for a "good color" - if its shadow, I know I'm going to pull from the cool version, even if I have to work in warmer reflected light later. Well, anyway, this makes me feel more in control, and smarter. I like that.

"unithamb" adj. negative of ithamb.

willek said...

Hi, Stape. I saw that Sargent ( titled Simplon Glacier, I think) in the flesh at a Worcester Art Musuem show of Impressionist art a few years ago. It made a deep impression on me. Firstly, it is BIG... and it IS like looking into the sun. The colors are surprisingly subdued, so, it appears, the values do much of the work. Many of the values were close together and it would be hard for most to keep them sorted out. There is not a wide variety of color. There are many little "touches" like the flare off the top of the little streamlet near the top that add to the illusion of intense light. The brush work was economical and masterful, too. I think there is more than one version of this subject by him. I wonder if one is a studio piece. Hearing that Zorn used photographs broke my bubble a little, do you think JSS used photo reference for this? WillEK

Bob Carter said...

I really like the different pigment advice. It makes complete sense to me. I use a warm-cool limited palette, based on Gruppe's palette, so I'm all set to try this. I'm hitting myself in the forehead, though, thinking "I should have figured that out."

Gregory Becker said...

I read your post on herding sheep and that is a very sensible and straightforward approach thank you.
This rock formation is very nice.
Nathan Fowkes has a similar piece on his blog Landsketch.
His is done in watercolor and gouache.

Unknown said...

Wow, this is immensely helpful and help explains something that was bugging me about my painting studies. I always assumed (when working in a cool light source) that adding white to lighten the color was enough to cool it off and stand out from the darker color with less or no white. It seems not.

I will be going back to the easel armed with this information to see what difference it makes. Thanks!

"graciash" spanish adverb. Thankfully cleaning ash.

Stapleton Kearns said...

When I wrote it I thought "this is going to be a new one for most my readers. I don't know if I have ever seen the idea written else.
unithamb having but a single thamb, as opposed to polythambism.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't know if Sargent used a photoreference, but if he did I would not be surprised. As I have said before I don't care about anything other than what the picture actually looks like.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I used to think of the Gruppe palette as being a limited palette,until a few years ago when the three color palettes became common.
It does have a warm and a cool of each color, as long as you don't have a problem controlling that thalo blue. It seems like a pretty good palette to me now. I would miss my few earth colors though....Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

That sheepherding bit is of course from Ives Gammell and may have been passed down to him. It sure made sense out of a lot of things years ago when it was handed down to me.

Stapleton Kearns said...

As I noted this often works but not always. The local color is going to be present to some degree in the shadow and it is good to be careful about making it too nearly like the color of the lights.There is almost nothing that always works, you need to have a many arrows in your quiver as you can.

graciash, code word with CIA concealed in the middle.

Bob Carter said...

After a long hate period, I've learned to control phthalo blue. I think of it as dynamite in a tube. I've added yellow ochre to Gruppe's palette. It's great for the initial drawing, and on Cape Cod you can get to sand colors a lot quicker with that.