Saturday, October 6, 2007

White Umbrellas

When you’re painting outside, the direct sunlight is a killer on your eyes. It’s hard to judge colors when you’re squinting from the glare of full sun on your white palette. I have a friend who uses dark brown palette paper to solve this problem.

Another way to cope is to always face your line of sight toward the sun, so the painting itself is in the shade, and it casts a shadow over the palette. But you can’t always limit yourself to looking in one direction. Sometimes you want the sun at your back.

The solution is the white umbrella, which helps to soften the sun's glare into an even, indirect light. Even if you are painting in a deep forest, little shafts of light will travel across your painting, and the umbrella will eliminate their distracting patterns.

To support the umbrella I use a “C-stand,” or Century Stand. A photographer told me about this vital piece of support equipment, standard stuff in the movie industry, but most artists don’t know about them. They’ll hold anything at any angle.

The goal for illuminating your work on location is to make the light level on the painting equal to the illumination in the scene itself. That way you can judge colors much more accurately.

This photo was taken of a painting directly in front of the landscape. It is lit by the light of a white umbrella, so the levels are pretty close.

By the way, some umbrellas are opaque, with black or gray on the inside. This doesn’t help, because you need the light from above, diffused through the umbrella, not bouncing up from the ground. Get one that is a translucent white nylon.

But with umbrellas, beware of the wind. I’ll talk about that hazard, frequently my downfall, in a future post called "The Disaster at Kaaterskill Creek."


Nina Johansson said...

I always wanted a white umbrella, but the shops don´t exactly overflow with them in Sweden... I haven´t found one yet.
About watercolours in Moleskines - nope, I haven´t solved that one. I use gouache, which works a lot better (but still not 100%), or coloured pencils. Moleskine´s biggest flaw. Wish they could make one with smooth paper that takes watercolours.

Bowlin said...

Great stuff, Mr. Gurney. Still loving this blog. Never knew that's what the basic purpose of the white umbrella! Hope you don't mind me asking a few more questions.

It looks as if you don't pull out all your pallet colors, but only the ones you'll use for that particular painting, while doing plein air? Plus, what are your pallet colors (if you haven't already mentioned them)?

Also, the second picture looks as if you toned your board first? Do you commonly tone your board, leave it wet, let it dry?

Steven said...

Thanks for this, James. I've been all over the interwebs and never thought to come by here to search for your experiences -- until I got a Google hit on your site.

As always, your generosity pays off for me. Thanks as always for sharing what you know and being here in blogger land.

Unknown said...

Best Brella now makes a semi-translucent white umbrella as well as the silver lined in black. Both have wind vents and fiberglass ribs. They come with a super clamp that will clamp to any easel and a rotating arm so you can position the umbrella in relation to the sun. Check it out at