Painting Into the Light

One of the major challenges of painting outdoors is the need to gather enough visual information about our subject in a brief moment of perfect light. In rushing to capture the light in nature, it is easy to lose those subtle details and tonal changes in the shadow areas of our paintings. In those situations when we won't be able to return to a given plein air painting site again and therefore must get all we can in the first go, the camera can be a very valuable tool for recording some of the visual details that we may not have time to capture in our plein air studies. However, the camera does not see at all the way the human eye and brain sees. Therein lies the danger: of relying too heavily on our photos when working back in the studio.

Plein air painting setup Looking into the light in this outdoor painting setup
Plein air painting set-up for Battery study. What the camera sees.

These illustrations show one of the problems inherent in photography for which our eyes and brains automatically compensate–exposure selection. When we look from a very bright area to an adjacent dark or shadow area, the eye adjusts automatically to give us the full range of tones in those shadows. As we are painting, our eyes constantly shift back and forth over the entire scene in what are called micro-saccades, which allow us to build up an image of a bright scene that also includes all the tones in the shadows as well.

Using photos can flatten the depth and color in shadow areas of a plein air composition. The best approach is to work at developing a better memory for details and consciously locking those in our visual memory to call upon later in the studio.
Detail, painted back into shadow areas.


Studio enlargement with plein air study and
first enlargement in background.

The camera cannot do this. It can only expose one thing or another at a time. To expose the bright sky properly, the shadows plug up; to expose the shadows, the sky goes white and featureless. Our choice then is to make separate exposures for each and create an HDR composite in Photoshop. The result is still a big compromise compared to what our eyes can take in.

On the Battery III by John Hulsey, 54 x 72, oil painting.
On the Battery III by John Hulsey, 54 x 72, oil painting.

In our view, the best approach is to work at developing a better memory for details and consciously locking those in our visual memory to call upon later in the studio. Putting the detail back into the shadow areas can add the kind of verisimilitude to our paintings that gives them life. Photos can be helpful, but they are no substitute for seeing.

For more interesting in-depth articles, demonstrations and valuable information, please join us on The Artist's Road.

–John and Ann

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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.