Friday, January 11, 2008

Overcast Light, Part 1

When a thin veil of clouds covers the sky, sunlight is diffused and indirect.


The sky appears light grey or white. It gives a soft overall illumination that lightens all the upward-facing planes. As planes face progressively downward, they get darker. But there’s no sharp demarcation between light and shadow, and there aren’t any definite cast shadows.


Overcast light is ideal for complicated outdoor scenes. It was a favorite with the French academic painters, like Edouard Detaille (1847-1912), above. One of its virtues is that it allows you to paint forms in their true local color with a minimum of modeling (description of form using light and dark values).


Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) was a leading academic painter who frequently made use of this kind of light. With overcast light his picture is simpler than it would have been with direct sunlight.


For example, here’s a painting by Meissonier in the full sunlight. You can see how the shapes of the cast shadows become new elements that he has to manage in the composition.


Technically speaking, this painting by Meissonier is set in open shade—note the sunny window on the other side of the house—but it’s the same basic effect as overcast light.


I believe Meissonier was a huge inspiration for Howard Pyle (above). Meissonier was the artist that every history painter was talking about during Pyle’s formative years, but he’s still in eclipse among most American art historians, unfortunately.


Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929) used overcast light to beautiful effect in this painting of Breton women. The light allowed him to reduce modeling. The white headdresses appear as simple silhouettes first.


Dagnan-Bouveret used shape welding in both the light and dark areas to unify the tonal masses even further. Painting a scene with nine major figures and still keeping it simple is very, very difficult to do.

You can survey more work by these artists, some in very large files, at the website artrenewal.org. Links to: Detaille, Meissonier, Pyle, Dagnan-Bouveret.

Tomorrow: Overcast light in plein-air and fantasy.

5 comments:

Patrick said...

Do you think they finished their paintings outside in the environment or in their studios? The figures look so convincing in their respective environments. It's as if the painters had them pose in the actual location. Are you familiar with their working methods?

Thanks for this post.

James Gurney said...

I've seen quite a few finished oil studies painted outdoors by Meissonier, Detaille, and Dagnan-Bouveret. They clearly had costumed models posing outdoors. They also did charcoal, gouache, and oil studies of models in their north-light studios. The final paintings would have been crafted in the studio from those studies.

Dagnan at least may have occasionally worked from photos. Gabriel Weisburg's book on Naturalism shows a couple of examples, but I don't think it was a regular practice for any of these guys.

DeWolfe said...

Detaille and Messonier were both studio painters, usually working on massive canvases. For most of their paintings working outside wouldn't be an option at all, it would take several men just to move the canavas.

DeWolfe said...

I am very impressed to see that Detaille and Messonier made it into your post, these are among my favourite painters but since they do mainly military subjects and they aren't English or American they rarely get a mention in most articles. Yet they were leading artists with world renown in their time as you said. Some of my other favourites are:
Lady Butler, Karl Rochling, Fortunio Matania, Richard Caton-Woodville, Howard Pyle, Frederick Remmington and Charles Schrevoegel (apollogies for spelling mistakes in any names).

sylvia said...

James wrote : I believe Meissonier was a huge inspiration for Howard Pyle (above). Meissonier was the artist that every history painter was talking about during Pyle’s formative years, but he’s still in eclipse among most American art historians, unfortunately.

Unfortunately, those painters called " firemen" ( pompiers) are absolutely " erased from the french culture and teachings too.....
Not only in former USSR did they " wipe " off people for ideas......The only painter who quoted them was Master Salvador DALI....