Extreme Plein Air Painting – Part II: Shadow Light

Tracks II by John Hulsey, pastel.

With the high-contrast conditions of winter sun on brilliant snow, we have been exploring the colors of snow and shadows in our plein air paintings. Shadows are essential because they create the form and interest in a painting of a winter landscape. "Warm light = cool shadows", "cool light = warm shadows" are two basic principles that we use to guide our color decisions when we are outdoor painting. But what do we mean by cool or warm light? Generally speaking, north light from a clear blue sky is going to be a cooler temperature than light measured from the south. But there are always exceptions, and it is up to the artist to use the knowledge of color temperature to his/her benefit. 

Tracks II was painted on a clear day, late on a winter afternoon. I tend to think of winter sunlight as relatively cool, even when coming from the south, as compared to summer light. So in this plein air painting, I painted the shadows with a warmish blue-violet, rather than a cold cobalt, and kept my sunlit snow on the cool side. While it may seem counter-intuitive, sunlit snow is rarely pure white, although the camera has trouble making this distinction. The complete step-by-step development of this plein air painting and many others can be seen at The Artist's Road.

With a little practice and a middle-value grey card with which to compare, one can see that snow is actually shades of light gray, from cool to warm, with pure white reserved for those highlights facing directly into the sun. Shadows can be warm or cool, as the artist wishes, but their color, value and architecture must be in harmony with the rest of the subject. To complicate matters, shadows usually contain reflected light within them. Reflected light is that light bounced into the shadow from a nearby lit up object, so the color of that object can also be mixed in the shadow area. This important observation gives a painter en plein air the ability to create a rich and colorful, snowy winter landscape out of what appears to be only a field of white.

These photos show how cool and off-white sunlight on snow actually is when compared
to a Kodak color reproduction control scale.  Pure white is apparent only in the brightest highlights.

What have you been working on in your winter landscape? Leave a comment and let us know!

–John & Ann

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Plein Air Painting Blog
John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.