Light is the most important person in the picture. – Claude Monet
Someone recently complimented me on the way that I manage to paint light in the sky, and then mentioned that she struggled to create the same illusion of ‘airiness’.
It got me thinking about how we actually see and how we attempt to create the illusion of light and three dimensional perspectives on a flat two dimensional canvas. This is the painting that stimulated the conversation between us.
Title: Summer encore
Dimensions: 30" x 20"
Oil on stretched cotton canvas. Painted 2023
My background as an architectural lighting designer and natural history photographer of 45 year experience, has afforded me a significant understanding of light and human perception. So I thought I might share a little of this knowledge in the hope that it helps you on your own artistic journey (assuming you are a painter).
Of course for any abstract painters out there, much of this will be largely irrelevant although some aspects might still be helpful.
Often, when we look at art created by beginners and amateurs, we see dense heavy blue skies, bright white or grey colourless clouds, vivid greens and overly exuberant colours from across the visible spectrum. With an endless number of premixed colours available to us, it’s easy to be seduced by their alluring jewel like charm.
I once read a quote that still resonates with me, “the bigger the palette, the smaller the painter, the smaller the palette, the bigger the painter”. Initially I baulked at this, because I thought “well, as nature doesn’t have rules, why should I”? Yet we must remember that we are attempting to create an illusion of nature, not nature itself. So yes, a limited palette does help weave disparate threads of colour into a harmonious and cohesive whole. Paintings that are chromatically harmonised just ‘feel’ right, more comfortable and somehow satisfying.
It’s generally better to mix subtle greens from existing yellows and blues used elsewhere in a painting rather than introducing a new green directly from a tube. When mixed well, colours just tend to sit better together like well behaved children.
However, there are many other considerations to take into account. We need to understand the properties of light and how we actually ‘see’.
The first shocking piece of information is that colour does not really exist. Electromagnetic radiation exists, wavelengths of elecromagnetic radiation exist but 'colour' itself does not.
The second 'head wrecker' is that you cannot actually see ‘light’, only it's presence of light and its effects.
Yes I know, both statements sound insane, and a quick cursory glance around you should quickly confirm that neither makes any sense. But wait...
Despite these apparent oxymorons, we humans cannot see light and colour does not exist outside of our brains. We can only see objects that are illuminated by light, not the light itself, and colour is not actually a property of ‘a thing’ or piece of matter; it is something generated within our brain by our brain. To my knowledge, chimpanzees are the only other mammalian species with 'colour vision', and all other animals sees life or nature differently. Flowers to a whole host of creatures look completely different to those that we see.
“What colour is not, is part of our world,” says neuroscientist Beau Lotto. “Every colour that people see is actually inside their head … and the stimulus of colour, of course, is light.”
If you take a torch and switch it on, you cannot see the beam unless its light radiation strikes particles of moisture or dust. That’s why on a misty night you can pretend to be a swashbuckling Jedi knight. In clear air however, the beam itself is invisible. It is only when light radiation strikes an object, and the object reflects that light are you able to see it.
With regards to ‘colour’, certain objects reflect more of a specific wavelength of light than others. That is why we see a certain colour. An obvious example is that of a lemon which reflects mainly yellow wavelengths, whereas a tomato reflects mainly red.
Objects that absorb all wavelengths appear black to us, whilst objects that reflect all wavelengths appear white.
Ever tried looking at a red apple or green pear bathed exclusively in ‘blue light’? Try it. You might be surprised. Do we really see things as they are? So does colour 'exist'? Perhaps we should stop before we stray into the realms of philosophical debate and reasoning.
What is true, is that for us to 'see' anything we rely on something called contrast.
Contrast is the means by which the eyes ‘detect’ observable information. Black text on a white page, as you are reading now, is an obvious example. White text on a white background though?
It’s in much the same way that an auto focus camera can only focus where contrast exists. Try seeing or photographing a white cat in the snow, especially one devoid of shadow, or a black cat against a mound of black coal. Reverse the cats within these environments however, i.e. place the white cat against coal and the black cat against snow and boom, the subjects jump out at us.
Of course it's not only black and white contrast that concerns us. Contrast itself can essentially be divided into three types:
1, Tonal contrast: Tone contrast is perhaps the one everyone is familiar with. It’s the perceptual difference between two monochromatic hues. The highest contrast is obviously between black and white. However, even tonal contrast can however be subject to illusion.
Take a look at the illustration of the two square blocks. You literally won’t believe your eyes.
Place your finger or a pencil across the line where they meet.
2, Colour contrast: Refers to the change in the appearance of a colour surrounded by another colour; for example, grey looks rather bluish when surrounded by yellow.
3, Luminance contrast: Can be defined as the amount of light reflected from one surface, compared to the light reflected from another surface adjacent to it.
Of the three, colour contrast is perhaps the one that most artists struggle with, and whilst all are important to understand, the application of colour from a contrast perspective will likely have greatest affect on a painting.
On a colour wheel. the greatest degree of colour contrast is achieved when opposites are placed adjacent to one another as in this diagram.
The subject of colour is actually quite an abstract one. I often wonder how any of us could describe the colour blue to someone born sightless. In fact, how would you describe the existence of colour itself? Not so easy, although we all know what blue, red or yellow look like. I suspect that most people would resort to using some other analagous or sensory input, i.e. warm/cool sensation to support their explanation.
Take a look at this piece of art by Charles Courtney Curran painted in 1888. In the black and white image it is relatively tonally flat across the entire canvas. It’s comprised predominantly of mid to dark greys, and although though the eye is naturally drawn to the lightest values, there really isn’t anything upon which to focus.
Now look at the colour version. The red umbrella against the predominantly green palette suddenly dominates the painting and immediately draws the eye. This is colour contrast at work. The painting suddenly becomes something memorable.
When I paint, it is largely an intuitive process, especially at the outset. Starting with a rough sketch-like under painting, I block in the darks to reveal and establish the composition. I then paint the darkest darks using a combination of subdued hues that I know will remain present in the final artwork, albeit at a barely observable level. Shadows are never merely a dulled or darker form of an item or surrounding area. Shadows themselves can be richly colourful adding visual interest to the viewer. Even within undergrowth or the spaces between buildings, light is reflected and surface colours modified.
With the darkest values established, I can then address the lightest tones, which invariably starts with the sky. I find it is almost always brighter than one initially imagines. Establishing the correct colour temperature of the sky is also vitally important because not only does it determine the ‘feel’ of the painting, but also the season, the weather, and or the position of the sun.
The sky is very much the conductor here, orchestrating the music of colour and cadence of value and tone. I let my brush strokes reveal its rhythm and language. How similar we artists look when standing at the easel, brush in hand, to that of an orchestral conductor wielding a baton!
“The light constantly changes, and that alters the atmosphere and beauty of things every minute.” - Claude Monet
So when painting the sky, think delicacy and weightless, think air, think dust particles, think moisture and refraction, think diffusion, don’t simply think ‘blue’ or ‘grey’ think light. There is only air and light. Everything else you see is merely a reflection or diffusion of light entering your eye. As an artist you are attempting to replicate the effects of light. Let it breathe.
There is always a danger that what starts out as a simple blog can develop momentum and veer towards becoming a thesis which is not my intention.
There are many excellent books out there that can expand on what I’ve shared here.
One of the oldest and best is John Ruskin’s ‘Elements of drawing’ published in 1857. It remains one of the most useful books on how to draw and paint for both the amateur and professional artist alike.
I was alerted to its existence by Monet himself who said
“Ninety per cent of the theory of Impressionist painting is in Ruskin's Elements”.
I have a beautiful old 1867 copy signed by the American artist Earl Shinn. I just love old books! Of course it’s worth buying a contemporary version too because it has been updated and embellished with colour illustrations. It’s also useful to have a copy in which to write your own notation. It's a book that I think every artist should have in their library.
Until next time, happy painting.
If you're an art collector, thank you, sincerely. It is your kindness and generosity that allows we artists to create and flourish and add to the rich artistic tapestry of human life.
All the best, Lee