In Part I on this topic we explored the history of indirect painting. In this post, we’ll look at why indirect painting is different from direct painting – why it creates a different “look” and how it can be used to create an extraordinary range of optical effects.
First, let’s talk about transparent paint. During my training as a landscape painter, I was not really given any information about transparent paints and what, if anything, they might be used for. In fact, I tended to think of them as a nuisance and to avoid them, because generally their tinting strength is lower. Like most direct painters, I vaguely understood that it was a good thing to keep the darks thin and the lights thicker.
Eventually, as I began to explore indirect painting techniques, understanding the properties of transparent paint and how they can be used opened up a a whole new way of looking at the surface of a painting.
Here is a diagram showing what happens when light strikes the surface of a directly painted work. The light strikes the surface of the painting and then bounces off. This mimics how light reaches our eyes on lit up form and is why opaque paint works so well to depict bright sunlight for example.
Indirectly painted works, on the other hand, are composed of distinct layers of paint, some passages applied transparently as glazes, others applied translucently as scumbles or velaturas and others in opaque paint. All of these layers may be visible when one looks at the surface of the painting. So what happens when light strikes an indirectly painted work? Here’s a diagram.
Essentially what happens is that light passes through the surface of the painting (rather than reflecting back as it does off an opaque paint surface) , strikes the ground or other opaque layer, and bounces back out, creating that “glow from within” look. So, when you combine different surfaces – all transparent, transparent glaze over an opaque layer, scumble over transparent, etc- you get all sorts of different effects because the light is entering and reflecting and refracting back in different ways on different parts of the painting surface.
This creates an optically complex look that just cannot be gotten any other way. Because the light travels back through the layers, it enters the eye in a more diffused state and creates both a glow and luminosity that enhances the atmospheric look of the work. Shadows look deep, transparent and mysterious, scumbles create air and atmosphere, softly covering forms, and opaque passages look even more brilliant. In a way, looking at an indirectly painted work is a bit like an archaeological excavation – the viewer peers through layers of paint and time. The surface invites a long, lingering look.
P.S. Our annual online class Painting the Luminous Landscape- Introduction to Indirect Painting for Landscape Painters- starts July 10th. Come see what all the fuss is about! Join us!