Monday, July 9, 2012

Part 4: Foliage / Forest Interiors

Artists who reference only photographs are missing out on a lot. As useful as photos are, they typically capture only a fraction of what the eye can see.

This is especially true with forest interiors. In a typical photo, the camera interprets the green as a single monochromatic color. The tree trunks sink to black.



In this detail of the photo above, the layers of leaves compress into a jumble of shapes. The blue sky bleaches to white and burns out the openings of the leaves.

Such a scene would look different to an observer. With our stereoscopic vision, our focal accommodation to depth, and our incredible tolerance of differences in brightness, our eyes interpret the scene with far more nuance. Let's see what we can learn by looking at painters who specialized in this very challenging subject.

Here's a painting by William Trost Richards called "Woodland Glade" from 1860. At first glance, the staging of the scene, with the plants festooned around the foreground, may seem a little contrived or conventional. It's an idealized view, but it was painted entirely outdoors from observation. He probably carried his easel around to several locations to create the composite scene.



Although he paints every leaf in the foreground, the distant spaces are filled with a variety of colors and edges. Some of the leaves are suggested with a stipple technique, made with a splayed brush. Softness is alternated with crispness throughout. The branches do not go to black, but retain some of their local color.



Here's Ivan Shishkin again, the fellow who painted the weed study in the opening post of the series. This time he's interpreting a coniferous forest on a sunny day. It's probably a studio painting, but it's based on a lot of plein-air studies. (Incidentally, this is one reason why plein-air painters might not want to sell their studies in galleries. They're the seeds of future paintings.)


Look at the warm shadow side of that tree in the center right, catching reflected light from the ground. Shishkin offers some detail on the bark of that tree. Just to the left of that, he uses soft painterly suggestion to create the illusion of further depth, as he does with the broad handling of the young saplings at the lower right. Things can move in and out of focus, even in relatively distant forms.

Tomorrow we'll look at the secrets of another master of foliage and forest interiors: Peder Mork Mønsted.


Thanks to Heritage Auctions and Tim Adkins for the art images.
Photo is from the University of Kentucky Dept. of Agriculture

Posts so far in the foliage series:

16 comments:

Autumnforest said...

Just gorgeous. I soooo appreciate anyone who can paint forests. Even though they are my favorite subject, I've always been rather colorblind for greens and it's exasperating when I want to paint such scenes.

Keith Parker said...

It's quite amazing how real these paintings feel. The photos are so bland by comparison. Makes me want to go for a walk in the woods.

Neurolinked said...

I Really love your series of discussion of nature painting it's so interesting.. also all the artists reference that you gave us as a teacher.
I've partecipated at your's Lucca Comic's workshop and i've early also follow your's always interesting blog ;).

Thanks James ;)

Kelden Cowan said...

Its funny. When you think forest, you think green. But from what I've seen its usually yellow, sometimes blue or blue/green. When there is green its usually very desaturated and fairly dark. Especially in old paintings. I don't know if its a rare pigment in paint or what...

You can see it in Bouguereau's "Nymphs and Sartyr". All that luscious greenery, its all a dark yellow. At least it is for me when I put it at full saturation and flat value. Once I realized the amount of hue shift in greenery my foliage started to look less alien :) Still a long ways to go though. This series is invaluable.

olive farrell said...

really great , tks for sharing, very inspiring...

Rich said...

Great paintings!
I would like to recommend having a look at
Ludwig Richter. Another one who quite successfully tackled the difficult subject of painting a forest.
And if you happen to pass by at the Zurich Kunsthaus in Switzerland, have a look at Robert Zuend there. A stunning oak-forest on the wall, 3 x 4 meters in size!

Todd said...

I need to get into the woods for a weekend and bring some paint. Thank you for the inspiration.

Neave Lifschits said...

Theres a typo in the third paragraph, second sentence:

"With with our stereoscopic vision, rapid depth... "

Thanks for the wonderful post!

kat said...

This is the best series yet!

Painting forests in watercolor is a real challenge. James Thomas Watts was the master of it, and I would love to know how he did it. His work is astounding. But so much of that glorious 19th Century watercolor tradition has been lost, giving way to the "fast and loose" crowd of the 20th Century. Perhaps in the UK there are still pockets of resistance!

Sherry Schmidt said...

What a great lesson to see! I paint in watercolor but this is very helpful.

Michael said...

This series of posts are so good I'll bet many artists, maybe even Andy Wyeth, wouldn't feel the need to go to Maine to escape 'The Green Problem'.

António Araújo said...

Jim, looking forward to the next posts. Just a question though:

Isn't it a bit unfair on the camera? :)I mean, when we say that the eye is so much more powerful?

I mean, each fixation of the eye is akin to a photograph, really...with a very small angle and with many of the problems of photography...the thing is that we take hundreds of such "photographs" when we look at a scene, and then "glue" them all in our brains.

If you allow the camera to take hundreds of photographs, each with its own settings of aperture, exposure, and so on, you find the camera is pretty flexible too.(you can see HDR as a first approach to that, but really, the fair comparison is just take lots of photos)

(although I agree the eye is a pretty powerful photon detector, and we don't suffer so much at high iso ;))

At the end of the post you mention painting in studio from a lot of studies...again, the gluing of many experiences, each study being in turn the gluing of many others.

(I am looking out my window now and trying to force myself to make a single fixation of a leaf on the tree outside...it really isn't very much better than taking a good photograph. :)-it's when I let my eye dart around -and my mind with it - that the magic happens)

Mike Lynch Photography said...

I want to echo what António Araújo said, but add a fuller explanation.

HDR is photographers speak for high dynamic range. This refers to the fact that film cannot capture the full dynamic range (dark to light) that our eyes can. And the chips on digital cameras have even less dynamic range than film does.

The pupils in your eyes grow and shrink to allow more or less light in as needed. They open to allow you to see into the dark and close so you are not blinded by bright lights. And it is all automatic - you rarely even know you are making these compensations.

Even though cameras, have adjustable apertures, light sensitivities, and shutter speeds, they can only record a small portion of the bright to dark spectral range in a single capture compared to what you can see. (This is something camera manufacturing companies are constantly striving to improve.)

But to capture more of the dynamic range, some photographers take multiple exposures of a single scene, each subsequent exposure, brighter or darker than the previous ones. Then, using software, the images are combined to create a single image that presents a better (hopefully truer) representation of what the eye sees.

Some photographers like the effect so much they exaggerate it to create interesting, if unreal, renderings of a scene. Many people think HDR means these unreal looking photos (sometimes refered to as "Grunge").

But that is not the original intent of HDR.

The goal was always to allow the viewer to see the entire range of light values in an image, the highlight details in a wedding dress and the shadow details in the grooms tuxedo at the same time. Film did it better, but eyes still do it best.
In the not too distant future, cameras WILL exceed the human eye. In some cases they already do, (Infrared, Telephoto, Asto-photography etc.)

Here is a link to learn more if I have not bored ou: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tone_mapping

Mike Lynch Photography said...

Oh yeah: And the reason I mention this is I don't think it has anything to do with stereo vision!

James Gurney said...

Mike, thanks, that's a really good explanation of HDR and the limits of photographic vision. To which I'd add that painters generally have the reverse problem. Since we automatically adjust and compensate with our eyes, we risk painting everything in the middle ranges, and we need to keep reminding ourselves to paint the lights lighter and the darks darker.

As Mike says, single-capture photographs can record a huge amount of information. They just work more optimally in certain exposure environments. Forest environments present huge challenges to directors of photography in film, and that's why they often shoot forest sequences on foggy conditions, when the problems are minimized.

Antonio, you raise another very important aspect of vision -- the way we piece together a complete picture in our minds of an object or a scene from a series of "exposures" or saccades. Our experience of the great and small elements of a scene transfers into a painting in a complex way that we barely understand yet.

Kat, I'm new to James Thomas Watts. Thanks for mentioning him. And Rich, I'm glad you mentioned Richter.

Kelden, I had meant to mention Bouguereau in this series. I love the way he handles foliage by defining leaf shapes but still keeping the values controlled.

Neurolinked, Lucca was magical. They put on a great convention.

Thanks, Neave. Fixed!

gbenaim said...

Hi James,

Great series, was hoping you would address a question Ive been dealing with recently, namely how chroma and temperature nehave in the shaded areas of trees, or put difefrently, how to paint the shadows of trees accurately. I realize there are at least two issues involved, what we see and how to paint it, so I was hoping you could touch on what happens to all those greens as they get in shade and how you go about understanding the changes in chroma and temperature as you paint trees. Thanks for a wonderful blog.