|Painting on the north rim of the Grand Canyon|
"Although I am not an artist, reading your blog makes me curious about how artists work. The time required to create a plein-air painting appears to be long enough (particularly near dawn and sunset) that the direction and perhaps intensity of the light will change."
Good question, Carla. This is a big issue for anyone who spends more than a half hour or so on a painting. You're right: light changes especially fast near sunrise or sunset, and sometimes an effect lasts only a few minutes. Here are my ten tips for dealing with the moving sun.
1. Know where the sun is headed.
In the northern hemisphere the sun moves from east to west, swinging through the southern hemisphere. If you're not sure which direction is south, remember that at noon, the sun is to the south. Orient yourself facing south, and point one hand where the sun is now and the other hand toward the western horizon. That's the direction the sun is headed. For every hour, it moves about the distance of the width of your hand held at arm's length. So project its position ahead in the number of hours you plan to be painting. There are probably apps for this, but you don't need apps.
2. Map the shadows early.
Here's one strategy. After you finish the preliminary drawing, take note of the boundaries of the shadows, either in pencil or paint. In watercolor you can paint the boundaries of the shadows early in the painting process.
3. OR Paint area by area.
Another strategy is to let the light change and paint each area as you see it. This will result in a painting with various light directions, but at least you're painting what you see at each stage. This strategy works well for a scene with separate elements that are likely to move, such as cars in a parking lot or Holstein cows in a pasture.
|Momentary effect at the end of the day, from my video Gouache in the Wild|
4. Set up for a sunset effect.
Some of the best light effects near sunset last only minutes. To capture those, your painting has to be all set up before the light effect comes. The problem is that you don't know exactly what the effect will be. So you have to be prepared. If you're working in opaques—oil, casein, or gouache, paint the scene as if it were in shadow—darker and cooler than it appears. When the late afternoon light hits the central feature of your scene, you'll be ready to capture it. After the effect passes, you have to train your memory.
|Forest scene, 6 x 12 inches. Two-day motif. Light changes very fast in a forest.|
5. Come back the next day.
If you have the luxury of painting in the same area for a few days, start a series of "two-day motifs". The idea is to work on several paintings for a series of days, painting each one during the best light for that scene. You don't have to finish in one session, just move to another motif and come back tomorrow to continue the first one. It's really satisfying to return to the same spot when the light is perfect after you've got a good start.
6. Watch out for building fronts in raking light.
If the sun direction is near to being tangent to the plane of a building that you're looking at, it's going to change very fast, either throwing it more into light or more into shadow and changing everything. All you can do is anticipate what it's going to do, and plan your painting strategy to suit.
7. Enjoy overcast days.
With sunlight diffused across the entire dome of the cloudy sky, the light will be amazingly stable throughout the session, sometimes for three or more hours. In overcast light, the color, hardness, and direction don't change too much. Get the weather forecast and if you know you've got a long period of overcast light, you can commit to a longer painting.
8. Paint a series as the light changes.
If you're interested in fleeting light effects, you can streamline your approach to paint extremely fast, doing each painting in a 15 minute window. Doing this means mixing the colors you'll need on your palette in advance. Draw the scene with the brush, mass the darks quickly and if keep a different brush for each main color. Most artists paint slowly because they waste time mixing the color for each brushstroke and then wiping the brush down to clean it for a new mixture.
9. Do the perspective drawing when the light sucks.
Setting up your easel can take a half hour or more. Then, the preliminary drawing can take an hour, and it's worth spending that time to get it right. By then the good light may have taken wing, and you'll be tasting the bitter fruit of despair. It doesn't matter so much what the light is doing when you're working on these foundational steps. Try to pick a motif where the light is getting better, not worse. That takes knowledge and experience.
10. Scout for the next day.
When you're in an area that you plan to paint the next day, be aware which subjects look best at which times of day. Make a thumbnail sketch during the peak lighting effect so you know what to expect. Then come back the next day early enough so that you can set up the painting. When the good light hits, you're ready for it, and you can capture it.
Do you have more tips? Or tragic tales of changing light? Please share them in the comments.