Monday, May 14, 2018

Deal with variable light on your painting

Judy P asks:
"James, I've can't remember if you ever discussed the topic about painting in daylight, and the value problems it causes. Umbrellas are a pain, so often I paint in the sun, with my canvas and palette aimed away, not getting hit by the light. But even if I am in shade, often my painting ends up way too dark, with little contrast, when I get it inside. 

That just happened yesterday. My painting looked successful while I was working, good value contrast, strong color and temperature variation. Then I bring it inside, and all of that is lost. I'm been doing plein air about 6 years now- how long does it take to make that automatic eye adjustment, to paint lighter and brighter than you perceive? Do you have any tips to keep on top of this problem during painting? So far my only aid is to use the middle grey paper palette to keep track- lighter or darker than middle. But 'paint what you see' is problematic!"

Painting under an umbrella held on a C-stand at right
Judy, You've got two important questions here. The first is how to set up your artwork so that the light on it isn't jarringly different from the scene you're looking at. The second is how to accommodate your eye and brain to the inevitable differences in illumination.

The answer to the first question is that you ideally want the illumination on the artwork—both the painting and the palette—to be identical to the light in the scene—identical both in terms of brightness and color. 

A close match of illumination levels makes color choices easier
If you're painting a front-lit subject, the full sun shining on your painting may be OK, but it may be too harsh and bright. This can be a problem for gouache and other water media because it makes the paint dry too fast.

One of the worst problems is dancing shadows and dappled light from a tree or the line of a cast shadow going across half your picture or your palette. This makes accurate color judgments almost impossible.

To solve all these problems, a diffuser can smooth out variations in illumination and reduce the brightness of the sun. It also makes a softer light that's nicer to work under. A diffuser is a layer of thin, translucent white nylon cloth suspended above your painting and easel. It might be a white umbrella or a smaller frame that's held closer to your work and that's less susceptible to wind.

Here's a video trailer that introduces some of the options of diffusers. (Link to YouTube)

Painting toward the light (or contre-jour) gets rid of the problem of uneven, dappled, or overly bright light, but it can sometimes be hard to get enough light on your work.

Using a diffuser while painting contre-jour
In some instances, like pubs or concerts, there's nothing I can do about the light being way too dim or differently colored on my work relative to the subject. In that case, I often work in black and white.

In the video below, I share some tips for increasing the light on your painting when you're facing toward the light. If you're working in deep shadow, there are ways to bounce light or use portable illumination to get the light levels higher and more even. I show how to build several basic diffusers in my video tutorial How to Make a Sketch Easel .

Most of these things can be made from inexpensive materials. (Link to YouTube)

The second problem has to do with accommodating your eyes to different light levels and getting the right contrast within your painting. A gray palette can reduce glare, but you need a white palette for transparent mixtures. Also, even if you use the gray palette, I find it's helpful to always have at least a patch of pure white and pure black in view somewhere as a reference to calibrate the rest of your values.

When I'm painting in bright sun, the problem for me is that my pupils get fatigued from alternately opening and closing. That can cause headaches as well as making it hard to judge relative values. The ability of your pupils to rapidly dilate and constrict diminishes with age.

In direct sun I tend to misjudge the variations in the colors, and either make the lights too dark or the darks too light. Regardless of the relative illumination levels, you have to always be conscious of comparing values within the little universe of your composition. To avoid "middle value mumbling," it helps to group the light values together and the dark values together, and keep the lights and darks separate.
How to Make a Sketch Easel (video tutorial) on Gumroad
Previously on GurneyJourney 
White Umbrellas
Contre-jour Lighting
Middle Value Mumbling


madillstudio said...

I understand this as value skewing. First I try to grasp light/dark biases my canvas is reflecting before I commit to a scene, and remember to work (nose up to the canvas sometimes) more attentively to chroma/value changes. Is it really that dark/light/warm/cool? I’ve also discoverd its easier to establish key darkest spots and work my values away from then. Later on then I can really see if I’m off a bit and where to place value accents as a result.

René PleinAir said...

What about painting with sunglasses, I seen it done by lots of English painters and it works quiete well is my experience although you might loose some colours.

James Gurney said...

René, Yes, if the light level is too bright, sunglasses are OK as long as they are 1) neutral density and 2) not polarized, and 3) that they cover the whole visual field.

Timothy Bollenbaugh said...

Does this apply: our visual system making an interpretation for each context, i.e. the outdoor context and the indoor context? So however accurate you may perceive and render in one, it's going to appear different when viewed in the other.


broker12 said...

Years ago I studied with Daniel Greene and I remember him saying words to the effect that strong light creates a weak painting, and weak light creates a strong painting. I don't paint outside so I've never had these problems . . . I like my studio, especially on very hot and very cold days.

Judy P. said...

I was so surprised to see my question as your latest topic James, thank you! My main focus concerned your second point, great to read. But I am still perplexed by your first point- that the illumination on canvas and palette should be the same as on the scene (preferably without glare). But isn't the real problem being you create a painting that can look great outdoors, then you bring it into your dining room. Then the blue colors get washed out, the contrast dims, because no indoor light is as bright as outdoors. I've heard painters complain about poor gallery lighting making their work look drab. I've taken to using quite dim light in my studio, because I have problems with values and keeping contrast anyway. But wouldn't plein air in shade be better than diffused lighting, because that would be closer to typical room lighting?

Judy P. said...

Also I just re-read your Middle Value Mumbling post- I must follow that more diligently. I tend towards Dark Value mumbling, a much more grievous problem! This also sounds like Sorolla's approach, from Thomas Jefferson Kitts' study of his works; as a student it's reinforcing to read similar advice from different sources.

James Gurney said...

Broker, I understand what Daniel Greene is saying: dim light forces you to grasp and state the essentials. What I would recommend however is to work under good, diffuse white light of a high Color Rendering Index, and then check your work from time to time with a Lorraine (or dark) mirror to see what it would look like in dim light.

That relates to what you're saying, too, Judy. Even though your painting may be seen in poor light, you want it to look good under strong white light, because if it looks good under good light, it should look good under any light—and what if your painting ends up in an art museum with excellent natural lighting?

Ian said...

I have a light that came with filters to adjust color temperature and try to illuminate my work halfway between the lighting in the scene and the lighting the work will eventually be viewed in. If you have an overwhelmingly warm lit scene and illuminate your work with that same warmth won't it end up too cool? Or if your painting a nocturn and keep your work dark won't it end up too light? The reason I think the middle ground is best is that our eyes will compensate for temperature unless there's contrasting temperatures. Those are special circumstances and I can see matching illumination as a good general rule. Thanks James for giving so much, your my hero.

Century Drywall and Painting said...

Thank you for your wonderful article it helps me a lot.


Huge thanks for this post! It was just what I was looking for!