Posts Tagged ‘light’

Atmospheric Effects

Friday, April 15th, 2011

Misty Morn on Gator Alley

As I drove down Alligator Alley (a long, straight stretch of I-75 that crosses the Everglades) one misty morning, I was intrigued by two things, in particular. The first was the way the foliage appeared layered by graduated gray values, separated by expanses of thin haze. The second fascination was the way the light and shade dappled the chain-link fencing, which is used to keep animals off the highway. I felt challenged to depict the patterning through watercolor.

One problem posed by my composition (#101105, “Misty Morn on ‘Gator Alley,” shown above) was the sky. The sun was strong and still comparatively close to the horizon. The light was bright enough, despite the haze, to cast clear shadows along the fence and to bring out brilliant colors in the grass. Yet the sky was not altogether clear and blue. Although I incorporated a pale cobalt wash to provide a hint of hue, it wasn’t enough to break up the vast expanse in the upper left corner of the painting. I didn’t want to depict a strong sky color or delineate clouds, which would have belied my intent, and since the haze itself was actually a thin, low-lying cloud. So I introduced a bird to break up the area and to provide a sense of “life” and motion.

The sheer simplicity of the composition is much of what makes it succeed.

Negative Painting

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

As an optimist, I like to keep things upbeat and positive. So what’s all this about “negative painting”? Good question.

081104 Tree Lights

Negative painting refers to the practice of painting around an object or shape (sometimes referred to as the “positive” element) rather than painting the object itself. The technique is frequently employed when a light subject is depicted against a darker background. But it can also be used when an artist wants to reserve an area to be painted separately, at a different time, either before or after.

You can see examples of negative painting in many of my paintings, especially those of light-colored animals or flowers. In the painting “Tree Lights” (#081104), shown above, the negative shapes between the plant quills served to define the shape of the bromiliad that has grown on the side of a tree trunk.

The plant’s quills were barely tinted with paint to suggest their local color and the light shining through and glinting off the surface of the plant.

Red Eyed Hibiscus

In “Red-Eyed Hibiscus” (#090803), negative painting was used around the edges of the white petals to define their shape. Contour shading and the red of the eye were added to the petals afterward.

Reworking erroneous alterations

Friday, October 15th, 2010

When a painting is “finished” enough to be given a title and inventory number, it may not have really been completed at all. I often have second … and third … and fourth … and even more … thoughts about a painting long after it has been set aside as complete. Usually, any subsequent changes I make are based on careful evaluation and are judiciously executed. Occasionally, however, I come to regret my alterations.

090105 Fritzie in Profile, version 1

In this early example of my work, the original painting (#090105) of a grey schnauzer, Fritzie, was largely pastel toned. I went against my better judgment and darkened the background to a mid-tone to comply with someone else’s suggestion. Although the dog’s white eyebrows show up better against the contrasting background, the painting lost its luminosity with the loss of the light background. The dog’s coat looks duller, and the painting as a whole appears flatter.

090105 Fritzie in Profile, version 2

My main problem with this painting was that I didn’t trust my own style and interpretation of the subject. Instead, in changing it, it lost its magic. To punch up the color, I would have done better to darken and enrich the colors in the dog’s coat rather than changing the background.

I decided that the overall appearance could be improved by increasing the contrast. I began by darkening the background even further, beyond its current mid-tone.

090105 Fritzie in Profile, version 3

I also increased the color in the dog, darkening the collar, eyes, nose, and interior of the ear, adding some gamboges (yellow) to areas of the coat, and introducing some of the background hues into the beard. The darker background colors seemed too intense for the gray dog, so I mottled them with sprays of water, which moderated the values and added texture.

Alterations aren’t always beneficial. Whenever I realize I’ve goofed big-time, my options are to (1) leave it as it is, cut my losses, and start over from scratch or (2) keep tweaking it to try to salvage what I can. Did the alterations I made succeed? For what I was attempting to do—return focus to the dog and increase contrast in the picture—I feel that my efforts succeeded fairly well. On the other hand, no changes I make at this point will reclaim the luminosity of the original version that I spoiled by fiddling with the background in the first place.

Composition contrivance

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Rudyard Kipling wrote, “I am the cat who walks by himself and all places are alike to me.”  A cat also has definite opinions about who he knows and doesn’t want to get to know, how much sun he’ll tolerate in his eyes, and whether he’ll just plain “wanna” or not.  Multiply that cat by two, and it’s a considerable challenge to shoot a paintable composition in a single photograph.

Boots & Bandit

For this commission, the two cats, Boots and Bandit, could not be persuaded to sit together in the sunlit chair that had been placed for the purpose.  Bandit, who had never met me before, didn’t trust strangers, so sat, haughty and uncooperative, glaring at me … when he deigned to sit at all.  Boots took off on his own to lie down between two other chairs, in the shade.  Not that I could blame him.

When being held/posed/manhandled in the blinding sunlight, both cats kept their eyes closed.  Yet their owner requested that I show the characteristic eye color of each of them.  I knew it would be hopeless if we continued the photo shoot in the sun, so we changed tactics and allowed the cats to run around in the open shade of the enclosed lanai.  I tried to position myself in one location from which I could capture their antics, wherever they moved.  And I took shot after shot after shot.  (What a cost savings digital photography is over film in such circumstances!)

Eventually I managed to get a good photograph of each of the cats individually.  Selecting the best photos of each cat, I repositioned them in relation to each other, through digital magic, to create my primary reference.

Aside from ensuring that their relative sizes were appropriate, my main concern in matching up the animals’ photos was that they should be lit from the same direction.  Fortunately, I had two good photos that were lit from the right, though Boots was largely in semi-shade and Bandit was sidelit by brilliant sunlight.  Degree of light can be altered in the painting process, but the contouring that directional light and resulting shadow creates on a subject is considerably harder to adjust.

I chose a few back-up photos of each cat to use as supplemental reference material, not only for color, lighting adjustments, and variations on pose, but also for that important and telling detail, their eyes.

This is when I really appreciate Adobe for having created that powerful photo-manipulation program called Photoshop.  It took me a while to learn; I still use cheat-sheets and refer to how-to books, but the program allows me to set up and adjust compositions on my computer screen that were unobtainable in life.

Beginner’s luck

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

Watercolor paint of any quality tends to lighten somewhat as it dries.  But the high proportion of water to paint in many of my early paintings caused the color to pale out markedly as the water evaporated.  I didn’t realize that I wasn’t using enough pigment to sufficiently coat the paper.


In rare instances, it proved serendipitous, actually working to my advantage.  In “Seamstresses” (#070601), I wanted to show the silhouetted figures sitting in a dark castle room and backlit by the bright window.  The high water content of the paint left a wonderful effect of light reverberating around a dark and dusty room, catching on dust motes as they hung in the air.  Notice how the upper part of the wall over the central figure is grayed out, along with the women’s skirts and the hassock beneath the game board.

The colors in the lit portions of the figures are considerably stronger.   Because they were painted with greater detail, the pigments in the focal area are more concentrated.  The wide dispersion of pigment occurred in areas where I used a broader stroke and less detail.

Despite its technical flaws, “Seamstresses” still remains one of my favorite paintings.