Extreme Plein Air Painting - Part II: Shadow Light

21 Feb 2011

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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