Sharpen Your Color Sense

Because the eye and the brain are constantly adjusting to the changing hues and values of sunlight and shadows when painting outdoors, it can be difficult to see those changes as they happen to our subject. If one is unaware that the original light has changed, the attempt to make adjustments can result in the lack of a definite color key and muddy paint colors. Monet famously changed canvases hourly as his highly trained eye detected that the light had changed upon his plein air subject.

The colors and values of the morning light on the house. The colors and values of the morning light on the house.
The colors and values of the morning light
on the house.
The colors and values of the afternoon light
on the house.
The roof color in the morning (left) and afternoon (right).
The roof color in the
morning (left) and
afternoon (right).

Shooting a photograph of a solid colored house at different times of the day is a great way to show the phenomenon because, unlike a landscape, the colors of the house are uniform. These photos illustrate the importance of identifying your key colors and values early and getting those spots of color on your canvas right up front. As you can see in the photos, there are not only big differences in the colors and values between the light and shadow areas on the house, but also dramatic differences between the colors and values of the morning light vs. the afternoon light.

We've chosen six identical points in each photo to show how dramatically different the colors would be if you were trying to paint the house at these different times of day. Indeed, that is an exercise in itself–try painting the same subject at different times of day and compare the results. You will not only have a new appreciation for how sunlight works, but you will also have taken a big step toward sharpening your "color sense."

James Gurney (of Dinotopia fame) gave a wonderful example of the different colors on a white building on a sunny day in his blog, Gurney Journey. Visit us at The Artist's Road to see more in-depth articles and interviews, including an interview with James Gurney.

–John and 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.