Thursday, August 21, 2014

Color Corona from a Bright Sky

I'd like to wrap up our extended Watercolor Workshop Week by talking a little more about a light effect that I mentioned on the video "Watercolor in the Wild."

While I was painting this carriage house on location, I tried to convey the feeling that the sky was both very blue and very bright. I wanted to simulate an effect that I have noticed in photography, where a bright sky bleaches out the camera's receptors and then spills over into small forms, making them take on the blue of the sky. (Edit: one aspect of this effect is an axial chromatic aberration called "purple fringing.")

I painted a very light cool wash in the sky, and then laid in the turrets, tree trunks, and branches with a mid-range blue. I also used a blue-gray watercolor pencil for the branches. 

The scene didn't actually look this way to my eye—the sky actually looked like a light to mid-range high-chroma blue, and the branches looked extremely dark. I had to consciously override what I was perceiving and paint an effect that I was imagining. 

While I was painting the picture, I took a photo to see if the camera actually did see it that way, and sure enough, the small forms turned quite blue.

I used the same basic idea of colorizing small forms against a bright sky when I painted "Churchyard," the final demo on the video. This time, though, I wanted the sky to look warm, so I laid down a very light yellow-ochre wash and then drybrushed the branches using a dull orange watercolor.


FlatClem said...

That's a wonderful watercolor James. I love the composition.

Also, your observation of the highlight bleach is really interesting and goes beyond the watercolor medium (VFX rely heavily on those).
Photographic effects are hard to get right, and i can only imagine the difficulty for outdoor painting where you dont really have a reference for it.

Dan said...

Hi James,

The artist imitating the way a camera sees is an interesting artistic phenomenon, peculiar to our age.

The Impressionists (particularly Monet) focused somewhat on how the human eye and mind perceive light and color, paying careful attention to the subjective experience of vision rather than to their understanding of the forms. (I realize that this is a vast oversimplification of the 19th-Century historical phenomenon known as "The Impressionists.")

Here you are attempting to record the scene as a camera would see it rather than as your eye actually sees it, based on your understanding of the way light and color are recorded photographically.

When I took a film class, I was pretty amazed to find out what lengths a director of photography must go to in order to make a scene look like it has natural light. In an exterior scene, artificial fill lights or reflectors are used to get detail into the shadows; shades or diffusers are used to block and soften light, artificial lights (e.g. headlights, street lights) will be replaced or gelled to emit a sunlight spectrum, etc. In an interior, the lighting is typically much stronger than normal, windows are gelled for color balance or reducing the overall contrast range, etc. All this is not for effect; it's just to compensate for the fact that a camera doesn't see like a person. Although camera artifacts, such as lens flares, are deliberately used to effect on occasion, more often cinematographers go to great lengths to eliminate them (with lens hoods, filters, ultra-high-quality glass, etc.)

An artist, on the other hand, can just paint what s/he sees. I recall not long ago seeing a painting of a subject that would have posed almost insurmountable challenges to a camera (low light, mixes of natural and artificial light, etc.) I thought to myself: "I've never seen a photo that would do justice to such a scene, but this painting captures the feeling of being there."

A favorite Sargent painting of mine is "On His Holidays," because it captures the particular feeling of an overcast day in a northern locale. You'd have to work pretty hard to get a camera to capture that feeling so accurately.

I don't mean any of this as a criticism of the choices you made in this painting. It's just that I find this phenomenon interesting.


James Gurney said...

Thanks, Flat and Dan, Loved your insights. I should have mentioned that there's actually a name for one type of color spill, which seems to be going on in the photo. It's an axial chromatic aberration called "purple fringing"

Unknown said...

"I don't mean any of this as a criticism of the choices you made in this painting. It's just that I find this phenomenon interesting."

Second that. When I watched the video I appreciated the effect, though I wondered about the reasoning behind it. In my own rather limited art instruction, I've read about the benefit of photo reference, but always with a warning to avoid the 'look' of a photo. (and many of the drawbacks Dan listed)

Though I did notice something today that jogged my memory of this - bright sunlight reflected off a paving stone, through a glass door panel and spilling onto the frame. What that might say about the state of my eyesight, I wouldn't like to guess.

James Gurney said...

No worries, guys. I didn't take it as a criticism at all. I think it's good to learn whatever we can about how cameras see. That knowledge is a requirement for VFX artists, as FlatClem suggests. Comic artist and animators have always been fascinated by how to simulate the camera's take on fast action and motion blur. And gallery artists have to know a lot about photography if they want to photograph their work well for reproduction, or even if they want their paintings to simulate their personal subjective visual experience. As an artist, I can't help being a sponge for everything visual.

Sergio Lopez said...

what's interesting to me is that the effect makes it look like a cold sunny winter day, like if there was a lot of moisture evaporating to create a misty atmosphere.

Karl Kanner said...

I've noticed Jeremy Lipking using this effect all the time and I appreciate your article (and the fact that you had to create the effect in your imagination) and explanation of how you went about it.


Connie Nobbe said...

I have so enjoyed this week of posts. I will refer to them many times. I also really enjoyed your video. You have made such a quality product, and it was so affordable for me, which I also appreciate. You really are an excellent teacher and amazing artist. By following your blog and purchasing your books and video, my paintings have improved and have more variety in approach. Thank you!