Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Ten Tips for Dealing with the Moving Sun

Painting on the north rim of the Grand Canyon
Blog reader Carla Gladstone asks about how outdoor painters cope with changing light:

"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.


A Colonel of Truth said...

11. Just start painting. And exploit every opportunity (seen) to strengthen the painting. That takes confidence. But with that comes experience and speed. 🎨💪🏻😎

PS Great 10 tips, James!

Unknown said...

Hey, Mr. Gurney, what advice do you have for sketching in pen and ink wash from nature? You're the best. \m/ 0.0 \m/

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fabio said...

Point 8 is particularly interesting, though it's far beyond my capabilities now, since it would take me 15 minutes to only lay down the basic outline!
Nice tips though, changing light is what mostly kept me away from long plein air sessions so far (and caused disasters too!)

Karl Kanner said...

I live in San Francisco and paint hear the ocean.....the light can change dramatically 10 times in an hour due to random fog. It's a nightmare sometimes!

David Webb said...

If you're new to en plein air painting, I think it's a really good idea to get to know your local patch. When you become familiar with a particular area, you soon learn at what time of day a scene will look at its best. An otherwise mundane view can be transformed into something worth painting if you catch it at the right time. Once you know this, you can arrive early and set up, get the drawing done and then wait/pray for that magic light.

James, that raking light across buildings/cliffs effect, is most attractive to paint but, of course, it's also the most difficult to get down on paper/canvas, isn't it? You really have to get a move on.
As a watercolour painter, I try and restrict my on-location paintings to an hour, tops. I usually finish with the shadows, getting them all done at the same time. It's not easy and success can be elusive but, when everything goes to plan, you go home triumphant.

Patricia Wafer said...

I live in the Midwest so my day always starts by looking at the hourly weather forecast. It is not always correct but usually enough to be helpful in planning where and when to paint. What Mr. Webb said above is so true. Being very familiar with an area at all different times of day and year is so helpful and I find a place gets more interesting when I spend more time in it. I don't think I really see a place the first time I go there; too much to take in. I'm looking forward to working on #5 once the next round of storms is through. Thanks for the great suggestions, James.

Antje Bednarek said...

I have to admit that the changing light conditions were the one thing which troubled me when I started painting outdoors. I'm not sure why, but I remember that I got extremely stressed out for the first few months with palpitations and anxiety and all the rest of it. I dreaded going out to paint! What makes all the difference for me now is drawing the shadows early on, as you suggest. Once I have done that I can relax. Also, I don't need to get it right the first time around. I can just come back later and give it another shot, or paint something else in similar lighting conditions. That also helps me to stay calm.

Sesco said...

In Monet's biographical documentary I recently viewed on DVD, he would carry several canvasses and simply leave his easel right where it was and paint one scene all day long simply replacing each canvas as the light changed. He might have several paintings underway from that spot, then return the next day, maybe the next days, until those paintings were complete. John Singer Sargent returned daily at the same time of day at dusk, paying the children of his farm hosts to enter the scene in the same clothes and hold the same poses, to paint "Carnation Lily, Lily Rose", a painting that won an award for him I believe at one of the Salon exhibitions. In this painting he dealt with the general fleeting light of dusk as well as the glowing reflected light of lanterns on the childrens' clothes and surrounding grasses and flower blooms. Leave it to an artist to see and take on such a challenge!