With the Northwest finally getting some sunshine, this weekend was pretty perfect for plein air painting. The big questions for plein air painters is how to capture the light quickly enough to evoke a time of day and to capture the sought after drama that light can make in a painting!
Light can usually be categorized as warm or cool. Different latitudes can also affect the color of the light you are experiencing. By and large, the light up here in the Northwest is rather blue….whereas the light in lower latitudes is more golden. Light in the Northwest is also often diffused because of our generally foggy or cloudy conditions. Everyone talks about the vaunted golden light in Italy’s most famous paintings, and if you ever visited there, you would be able to recognize that the light just seems warmer. It is also sharper, clearer…due to the atmosphere. These light characteristics can transform a painting.
Morning light is generally cooler and less distinct, although in a very sunny climate, this may not be very noticeable. In most latitudes, the moisture in the air makes this light less intense. At sunrise, the sun is closer to the horizon so the sunlight is filtered through more atmosphere and has a noticeably different temperature. If you are painting in this kind of cool light, adding bits of warm color to the landscape, or perhaps warm toned people into the painting will help balance such cool light.
At midday, the sun is directly overhead so colors are illuminated by unfiltered “white” light. This will be neither cool nor warm, highlights and contrasts will be brightest and shadows will be minimal. At this time of day, paintings are often depicted in their true colors. Light will be on top of the trees, land, or water.
Late afternoon light is generally the warmest. Warm yellows, oranges and reds are at home in this setting. Touch the areas in the light in your paintings with warm color. Even the cooler colors should include some yellow and perhaps a touch of orange, creating a warmer hue.
As the sun goes down, reds and oranges dominate everything in the light. As you mix your tints, make sure they contain some of the warm colors that represent this warmer light. Using cool colors in the shadows will help intensify the warmth of the light in these late day paintings. I often use a cool blue or purple in the shadow areas to create contrast.
When trying to create a sense of light in your paintings, make sure that the areas in the light are warmer and lighter. As in this example of a Tuscan Doorway, it is the contrast that creates the most dramatic light statements. When depicting cool light, paint the shadows with a warm dark. I like to add a bit of turquoise or Alizarin Crimson to the mix.
The most important tip is to be consistent. Make sure all the highlights are painted at the same angle, that the shadows are of realistic length and strength.
Here is a great example of dramatic lighting by one of my favorite Northwest Artists, Dee Boyles who lives in McMinnville, Oregon.