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Painting Into the Light

24 Apr 2012

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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