Seeing the Light

I’ve spent a good chunk of this last week or so working on the “light thing”, which, when you get right down to it, is what representational painters are painting. Or, in other words, the effect of light on an object, whether is be a tree, a barn or an apple in a still life. Besides a lack of good drawing skills, failure to accurately perceive, understand and represent light is one of the things one consistently sees in poor or mediocre paintings. Everything tends to be in local color (the “native” color of the object) and the shadows are too dark and lack life. This tends to come from painting from photographs.

Dawn on Dunraven Pass, Yellowstone NP
Dawn on Dunraven Pass, Yellowstone NP

Capturing the light is one of the major, almost addictive challenges of plein air painting. A given quality of light lasts about two hours at most, sometimes two minutes. It’s an opportunity to experience frustration and exhilaration almost simultaneously. Plein air painting also addresses the problem mentioned above about shadows. When you are in front of the scene, you see how much wonderful color and variation are in shadows that a camera doesn’t pick up, not even the digital ones, although they are much better than film was.

Another important point is that a given hue, value and temperature of a color exists only in relation to the colors around it. No color is dark and cool in and of itself. Not even black (if you mix your own, which you should) or white. It’s always a matter of “warmer than” or “lighter than”. How far one pushes the contrast between color value and temperature is a personal choice the artist makes in order to accurately express their vision and emotional response to their subject.

Along Goodall's Cutoff, Idaho
Along Goodall's Cutoff, Idaho

As primarily an animal artist, I found early on that when I wanted to put an animal in their habitat, I also became, ta da, a landscape artist. And that has proved to be much more difficult for me to get a handle on. I’ve taken at least as many, if not more, landscape painting workshops as wildlife ones.

I’ve done seven small landscape studies over the last few days, mostly just 6″x8″, working on two problems: that classic daybreak and afternoon glow and the wonderful effect of light on trees with dark clouds behind. The small size takes less time and lets me focus on the problem I’m trying to solve.

It’s a juggling act. What order to put the colors down, what values and what temperatures those colors should be. And I still try to do a decent composition and pay attention to the drawing.

Cottonwoods, late afternoon; Dubois, Wyoming
Cottonwoods, late afternoon; Dubois, Wyoming

The above paintings took around two hours each and were done on canvas panels with a round brush.

Oh, and I have integrated the Permanent Green Light and Manganese Hue into my palette. Haven’t quite found out what I’ll use the Permanent Magenta for yet.

More Mongolian poetry on Monday!


Nature is what you see and what you think about it. Artists change our thoughts about nature, and so, in sense, change nature. A masterpiece does not look like nature, because it is a work of art. The language you want to speak is art, so study art from the masters.

John Sloan

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