In the 1890s Monet experimented with painting the same motif several times—each time from the same angle, but under different conditions of light and atmosphere. These images were conceived, executed, and exhibited as a group.
Here are just four out of the 30 studies that he did of the Rouen Cathedral. He didn’t get too caught up in the mind-bending complexity of detail in the cathedral façade.
Instead he developed a way of painting to convey his sense of the transitory light effects, from the warm frontal lighting in the upper right image to the veils of mist in the lower right. The worthiness of his approach comes across best when you see the paintings next to each other.
Monet approached other subjects as a series. He painted matched sets of grainstacks, spring meadows, ice floes, poppies, the city of London, the Creuse Valley, and the Seine River.
During a painting vacation in central California, I thought I’d try Monet’s idea, maybe not for 30 paintings, but at least for a couple. I painted the first one in the morning. The first light touched the farthest range of mountains and began to sweep across the hills in the left foreground. The colors in the central mountain mass were cool and close in value.
I returned in the afternoon to find everything transformed. The far hills blazed with browns and oranges of the chaparral lit by the warm light. The jagged landforms became insistent. The sky appeared relatively darker and more saturated.
This little experiment was a reminder that the colors I actually mixed for my painting owed more to the particular conditions of light and atmosphere than to the local or innate color of the objects themselves.
Or to put it another way, color in landscape is less a property of material surfaces than it is of effects of light and air. You see this principle most forcefully when you try painting a series.
Nathan Fowkes, a conceptual designer for DreamWorks Animation and an instructor at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art produced one of the most impressive examples of serial painting.
Looking out of his workplace window during breaks, he created this array of 36 paintings of the same Los Angeles valley scene. The non-descript white buildings and the far hills take on a limitless range of transformations as the haze and light shimmers and changes. No two are alike, and no camera could have registered these subtle nuances.
Note that blue shadows on the buildings tend to occur on days with blue skies. The colors of the distant mountains vary from earthy browns to pale pinks to soft blues.
If you want to try a series experiment, here are a few tips:
- Choose a motif that has a piece of sky, some distant reaches of space or mountains, and ideally a house or other white object with planes facing in different directions, because white is the best register of colored light.
- You can paint the images either on a set of separate panels, or tape off a larger board into equal size increments. But as you work on each study, don’t look at the previous ones.
- Keep the drawing consistent each time, so that the only variable is the light and color. Spend the first day working out the drawing for all the panels, or do one careful line drawing, photocopy it, and glue identical copies down on each separate panel.
- Paint the subject in different times of day, and if you can, different seasons of the year.
Nathan Fowkes's Blog, Link.
Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art, Link.
1990 New York Times review of a Monet serial exhibition, Link.
Tomorrow: Strange Tree