Lessons From a Walk

Last summer, while out for my usual early morning walk, I noticed this big foliage mass of a tree which hangs over our road. The thing that struck me about it was that it perfectly demonstrated a couple of points that come up when painting trees, and really anything in Nature. I took a picture of it hoping that the values and colors wouldn’t get too distorted and that I might be able to use it as an example. Luckily in this case, the photo shows the points I want to make pretty well.  Click to enlarge.

lesson from a walk photo

First, as we talked about in this post, often the mid tones will be the most chromatic, that is have the most intense color. This is because the color is not as washed out by light as the lights are, and isn’t dulled as much as the shadow areas are. I think if you click on this photo you can see pretty clearly how the mid tones have a more intense green color than either the lights or the shadows.

Secondly, you can also see that the top planes of the foliage in the back right side are cooled by the light from the sky.

Third, the light struck parts of the tree facing to the left are not all the same. Those closest to the light- that is, the area on the top left  are the lightest and warmest, while those more in the middle of the tree and farther away (on the right) while still struck by the light are not as light or warm.  This is something that is often noted in figure drawing, but seldom discussed in landscape painting. In fairness, it is a lot more obvious on the figure because the light source is closer to the model and both are closer to the viewer, but the idea is the same.

Fourth, I think you can see that the interior shadows are warmer than the shadowed areas on the outside of the foliage mass, which we discussed in this post.

lesson from a walk photo desat

And finally, this greyscale version of the photo demonstrates how the values of the upright planes on a bright sunny day might well be darker than you think. The lights come in at about value 5. That warm green color fools our eye into thinking those lights are much lighter. But, if we paint them too light, of course, they are “out of value” and stick out like a sore thumb!

P.S. Looking forward to a great season of plein air painting? We have two upcoming online classes designed to help you make the most of the plein air season! First up starting May 8, by request, is a repeat performance of our popular Understanding Values in the Landscape class. Next to drawing, values are the weakest area for most beginner and intermediate landscape painters. If you want to finally “get” value- how to see it and how to paint it, start here! Our annual class on Field Sketching starts May 15. A perfect companion to the Values class, this class is designed to get you outdoors and give you the confidence and skills to work en plein air with success. Join us!

Where To Look for Shifts in Color Temperature

So, now we know that color temperature is an important attribute of color, and that seeing and painting those shifts will add quality to our paintings. But, where do we look for them?

Over the many years that I studied with Ned Jacob, he rarely answered my questions directly. Usually, he would say enigmatic things like “know where the violet lives”.  Catchy, huh? But, not helpful. So, I plan to tell you exactly where to look for color temperature changes.

Color temperature in landscape painting is most often a product of the color of the light and/or surrounding local color. The light is either warm (directly affected by sunlight) or cool (directly affected by the cool sky color). Both of these things will occur in the same scene. So your job is to know where the light is warm and where it is cool.

One simple thing to remember is “it’s warm in there”, meaning that the interiors of things and the undersides of things – under trees, interiors of foliage masses, cracks and crevices in rocks, and things like that will typically hold some warm reflected light.

Here is a dramatic example of that. This painting by the Spanish impressionist Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) shows how the warm light of the sand is reflected up onto the belly  and the inside of the leg of the white horse. The cool light of the sky cools the temperature of the boy’s chest in shadow, and also cools the color on the horse’s back in light. A masterful orchestration of color temperature! Click for larger view.

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Just for fun, here is a photo of the man himself painting that huge canvas on a beach in Spain.

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But, we don’t need to have a big white horse in our painting to see and paint color temperature changes. Here is a beautiful painting by Russian painter Isaac Levitan which also demonstrates these ideas, albeit with more subtlety. Click for larger view.

levitan tree 72 dpi

Here the sun strikes the tree from the front left. The foliage in the upper areas of the tree is cooler, influenced by the cool light of the sky. The light struck areas are of course warm. But, so is the lower foliage and interior areas behind the tree, as a result of warm light bouncing up from the ground plane.

Here is another example from Ivan Shishkin, my other favorite Russian. The interior of this wood is warm! You might be tempted to paint that cooler, to make it go back, but you would be wrong. It would come charging toward you. But, with that nice warm color in there it recedes. The trees on the exterior of the woods are cooler, affected by the cool light of the sky, especially on the right side.

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Another place to look for temperature changes is in shadows. Form shadows tend to be warmer and cast shadows cooler. In a cast shadow you will find more warmth closer to the object casting the shadow and cooler as it moves away and is more affected by the cool light of the sky.

Here is an example by Maynard Dixon, iconic painter of the American West. Click for larger view. See that shadow on the ground cast by the horse? There is warm reflected light in the shadow from the horse and cool reflected light from the sky.

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So be on the lookout for places in the landscape that hold color temperature shifts. See them and paint them!

P.S. Last call for our online class Practical Color Mixing for Landscape Painters I which starts this Friday February 27. Crack the secrets of value, hue, chroma and color temperature! Join us!

It’s Warm In There! – Lessons on Color Temperature

One sunny, breezy day over twenty years ago, I was painting boats at a picturesque harbor on the Maine coast with my teacher and mentor Ned Jacob. There is some sort of special hell reserved for artists painting boats, especially boats that are moving. bobbing up and down and generally not staying still! But, on this day, it wasn’t drawing that had me totally flummoxed. I was painting a white fishing boat moored nearby and felt I had a pretty good drawing of the structure. But, as I tried to paint the interior of the cabin, which was in shadow, I could not make it look right. It looked like a flat piece of paint rather than an area receding away from the outside of the boat. I had a nice pile of grey paint that looked like the right value for the shadow. Ned looked over my shoulder and said “It’s warm in there.” Then he picked up a speck of cad orange with his brush, dropped it in my grey and applied it to the canvas in one deft stroke. It went back, it had “air”, it was warm in there! It was my first lesson in color temperature and I never forgot it.

Color temperature seems like it ought to be a really easy concept, but in my experience it is both hard to understand and, for the inexperienced, even harder to see and therefore to paint. One thing I learned from Ned was where to look for it- where and how to identify places that might hold a color temperature change. Once I knew where to look, then I saw it everywhere!

It was several years later when I read that well known adage “break temperature not value” in Birge Harrison’s book Landscape Painting. It took a while to understand how color temperature and value can be used together to create not only solidity of forms with an economy of values, but will also be the most effective combination to produce the illusion of light and atmosphere in the landscape. Although you can depict it with well organized values only (convert master paintings to greyscale if you doubt that!), the combination of an economical value structure with strategic color temperature shifts will positively make a painting sing!

Here is a painting by American artist Clark Hulings (1922-2011) that illustrates this point. Notice the color of the wall in shadow. The cooler color above is influenced by the sky while the warmer color in the lower part of the wall partakes of the reflected light from the ground. The shaft of light hitting the wall is of course influenced by the warm sun.

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In the next post, we’ll explore other examples of where to look for color temperature changes. Stay tuned!

 

P.S. Our online class Practical Color Mixing for Landscape Painters starts February 27. Learn how to unlock the secrets of hue, value, chroma and color temperature. Join us!