Painting Essentials: Color & Light from James Gurney

Sunset over the Catskills by James Gurney, oil painting.
Sunset over the Catskills by James Gurney, oil painting.

If I want to excel in my craft and become any kind of decent realist painter, the two aspects of oil painting that I need to focus on are color and light. Perfecting the two, together, will allow me to paint anything I want.

James Gurney is a plein air painter and the fantasy art author and illustrator of the book series, Dinotopia. His expertise with painting color and light is well known, and I’ve gleaned a few great tips from his book, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, to share with you.

One important point is that overcast light is surprisingly ideal for painting because it reduces extreme contrasts of light and shadow. So when I look at a scene I can assess its true colors without any extreme contrasts of light and shade. And looking for this kind of lighting is a reward because colors also appear sharper, which means I can use more high-octane colors on canvas.

Local color, or the color of the surface of an object as it appears in white light, is key in almost every painting. The colors I mix will likely be to some degree made up of local color. Using that as a starting point, I can lighten or darken the color to model a form, add gray to create a sense of atmosphere, and bring in a different hue for reflected light.

Millbrook Library by James Gurney, oil painting.
Millbrook Library by James Gurney, oil painting.

Green (one of my favorite colors!) is one of the toughest colors (boo!) to make work in a painting, which is surprising given how commonplace it is in our natural world. Gurney’s tips for handling green include not using any greens from a tube, instead mixing them with several blues and yellows for weaker and more varied colors.

He also recommends using pinks and reddish grays with greens to make the colors pop, and varying the green mixtures based on the scale of an object.

I’ve got to tell you I’m a little bit in love with Gurney’s approaches! He is a whiz with so many painting techniques and gives straightforward instruction that has helped me really understand and flesh-out my own painting process. For more from Gurney, check out Watercolor in the Wild, How I Paint Dinosaurs, and Australia’s Age of Dinosaurs, which feature Gurney’s insights and tutelage on all parts of the art-making process and with several media. I hope the exploration is as rewarding for you as it is for me. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

One thought on “Painting Essentials: Color & Light from James Gurney

  1. Especially informative and helpful. The Millbrook Library is done in a palette typical of the 50s illustrators, and I long to be able to replicate that. Thanks for such a great blog post!