Monday, December 20, 2010

A belated post

Above is a blue night scene. I make one, occasionally two of these every year at this time.
I received a good e-mail query today, here that is:

Next week I'll be going on a little painting trip to the mountains. Ideally there would be some kind of sun to liven up the paintings, but with our weather (WA state) it will most likely be very similar to the light in your pictures of Williamsburg. Cloudy dim and diffused.
Do you have any good strategies or advice for that kind of lighting situation? I've struggled with it in the past.

Dear Styg:

I used to hate painting on gray days, but I have learned to like it better in recent years. The peril is making pictures that are lugubrious. Here are some things I do to avoid that.
  • Avoid big open barren or bleak landscapes, unless you want to be bleak. Many scenes that work great on a sunny day are just too unrelievedly gray on a overcast day.
  • Look, if you can, for something that does have color, a colorful building or a rusty old truck or golden grasses, maybe oaks with their russet leaves still clinging to them. Moody is good on a gray day, but watch out for depressing, the difference can be a fine line. The ocean is a good place to be too. The surf on a gray day is just as good as on a sunny day, maybe better.
  • Try to keep the painting light, and avoid keying it real low, that is an easy mistake to make on a gray day. You may have to deliberately "lie" a little to do this.
  • Rather than just painting an area of gray for your sky, perhaps you could put in variation in the form of clouds, even storm clouds or elongated horizontal clouds, whatever, just to get some variation in the top half of the painting. Try to keep that as high key as you can too. Seago did a lot of this and well.
  • When you are mixing grays, use no black, make lots of different grays from different mixes of colored pigments. Lean them to the warm, to the cool, towards red, or towards blue. You can still have color variety, even if it is couched in innominate colors.
  • Avoid painting big black "things", that is don't let any big dark area of the canvas take up to much room or get inky. It is often better to try to get big light areas into your painting.
  • The good, really good news is you get hours and hours of virtually unchanging light in which to work. It is one of the things that redeems gray day paintings is that I can work on the same scene for many hours.
  • Go for drama, don't let everything get all muddled together into a middle tone. Key the lights up, but don't wash out every one of your darks, keep a few for contrast. The lights won't look light unless there are a few darks for contrast.
  • Think about what a sunny day painting looks like, it has contrast etc. Try and smuggle some of those characteristics into your gray day work. I don't mean convert your painting to a sunny day, but to try to use some of the tonal qualities that happen naturally in a sunny day picture to enliven a gray one.
  • You can invent a break in the clouds or a patch of blue or a colored strip of light along the horizon. It is nice sometimes to relieve all of that gray with an area of color in the sky, even if it is not there. I have been known to fake sunset colors into the sky in a gray day picture.
  • Study artists who were good at gray pictures. Many of the tonalist (particularly Crane) , Corot and Inness did wonderful things on this kind of a day. If you know that art well you will have a vocabulary of ideas to plug into a painting that needs some jazzing up.


Deborah Paris said...

killer nocturne Stape. Merry Christmas!

willek said...

Just a terrific blue nighter and a terrific post, once again. I have been rasslin with this very thing lately.

Philip Koch said...

Excellent comments.

Especially good is the idea to think of the contrast that a sunny day provides and find a way to get some of that into your grey day painting.

Something I've decided is a PRINCIPLE of landscape is that a source that looks good on a sunny day doesn't look good when it's cloudy. And conversely, if your source looks good when it is grey, the sun coming out will ruin it. This is true 99% of the time in my experience.

The longer one paints, the better one becomes at lying well. Lie with conviction!

Antonin Passemard said...

Neat advice ! Gray days here I come ...

Jesse said...

Great advice. I hadn't thought about the benefits of diffused light: hours of unchanging light. I will use that fact to cheer myself up while squinting into the mist.

Your annual night scene is another knockout. I always look forward to them.

Debra Norton said...

Beautiful night scene. And great advice for painting on gray days. I think I'll print this post and put it with my outdoor painting gear.

I also live in Washington, near the coast, Grays Harbor County, in fact, named after Robert Gray, but the local joke is that it's after the weather.

Maybe Stygius and I can get together to paint our cloudy state.

Todd Bonita said...

Great painting, really well done. Did you do this on sight or from memory, it's really remarkable...I wonder if you were out there with a head lamp or something. Great post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. I painted it in my sleep, I just woke up and there it was.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanaks, Will.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Which is not to say that habitual liars make the best painters.

Stapleton Kearns said...

They will come for you.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

I have heard it is very gray out there. New England is gray often enough for me.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The painting was done from a sketch on location and photos, but mostly it is just made up.