Color, Painting Technique, The Landscape Atelier, Water

Water: Color in Reflections

Painting water is an endlessly challenging subject. In addition to understanding the visual science of how we perceive reflections, as artists we also need to think about how to best depict those perceptions in color!  Here are a few helpful color notes to think about when painting reflections:

~the depth of the water (the deeper it is the darker)

~the amount of light coming from the sky (in sunlight we see more color)
~how clear or muddy the water is (muddier water will reflect more light and we see more “water color”)
~from what position we are viewing it (looking straight down we see more of the water color and looking out at an angle we see more of the reflection).

Let’s imagine standing on the bank of a small pond. As we look down into the water on a fairly perpendicular line, we will see the bottom of the pond (sand or mud). When we look a bit more closely we may also see some reflection of the sky. As we look out at the pond at more of an angle, the view of the bottom disappears and the reflection from the sky or trees becomes predominant. What this means usually is that the color in the near shallow water will be a bit warmer and darker (partaking of the brown bottom) and become lighter (reflecting the sky) as you look out toward the center of the pond.

Now look at the trees reflecting into the pond on the far side. If the day is sunny, you will see more color in both the sky reflection and the trees. On a cloudy day or when the light is low, these colors will be grayer. Generally speaking, in reflections of darker objects, you can see more of the color of the water.

Here is a wonderful example of some of these concepts at work in this painting by contemporary American landscape painter Joseph McGurl.

Joseph McGurl

Joseph McGurl

You can see the concept described above at work in this painting. The near water is yellowish/brownish green- partaking of the brown bottom as well as the water color. Also notice the shadow cast by the fish on the bottom. As you look out into the pond the reflection of the sky is seen-darker in the middle where the zenith of the sky is reflected and lighter toward the far bank where the light from a lower part of the sky is being reflected. A few horizontal light lines (reflecting the sky color) here and there complete the illusion.

Here is another example by Clyde Aspevig, another contemporary American landscape painter. Here parts of the water are moving so the reflections are less apparent, but you can still see their color. In the near pool where the water is more still, the color of the water and the bottom of the river overtakes the reflection from the sky and the transparency of the water allows us to see rocks on the bottom.

Clyde Aspevig

Clyde Aspevig

 P.S. For centuries the depiction of water has challenged artists. Its unique properties- transparent, reflective, moving, still- create wonderful visual opportunities. In our annual Painting Water online class we learn how reflections are created and how to depict them, how the depth of water affects its color and value, how to depict still and moving water, techniques and color palettes for water and using water features in your compositions. This class starts June 12th. Join us!

chroma, Color, Color Temperature, The Landscape Atelier, Trees, Value

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!

Art History, Color, Color Temperature

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.


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!

Color, Color Temperature, The Landscape Atelier, Value

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!

Art History, Color, Value

Chroma Trumps Value

This month in the Values I class we have concerned ourselves with being able to recognize values in the landscape accurately as well as to understand concepts like Carlson’s Theory of Angles and atmospheric perspective. We often perceive value in Nature inaccurately. For example, warm colors are often judged to be lighter than they actually are. Cool colors, on the other hand, will often be perceived as darker. So, we learn to recognize those tendencies and challenge our visual assumptions.

Another good example of our perception vs. reality occurs with the color attribute of chroma or intensity of a color. One piece of information can help us overcome our preconceived ideas about high chroma colors: generally speaking, the highest level of chroma occurs in the middle value range (as opposed to at the light or dark end of the scale). There are always exceptions to that, with some colors having high chroma in a slightly lighter range and some really dark colors having high chroma (think Prussian Blue). But, if you start out with the idea that if you are seeing high chroma you are probably seeing at least a mid value then you will more times than not be in the right neighborhood value-wise.

Here are some examples of paintings containing high chroma. The greyscale version is presented too, so you can see how chroma trumps value!

A beautiful Isaac Levitan painting with lots of high chroma greens, but all that high chroma color is deceiving. Those foreground greens are at least 5 on the value scale! Bet you thought they were about a 7, right?

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Here is a vibrant Willard Metcalf which demonstrates our point ! All that warm chromatic color reads light, but is actually keyed much darker than you might have imagined. Much of this painting is in the middle key.


Metcalf greyscale

So, when you see or want to paint high chroma- think middle key!

P.S. Our Practical Color Mixing for Landscape Painters online class starts February 27. Learn to unlock the secrets of color mixing by understanding the concepts of hue, value, temperature and chroma. Discover how to create beautiful color harmonies using limited palettes and to edit the local color provided by Nature into a harmonious color scheme. Join us!