In plein air we attempt a form of direct translation. In the
studio, we may recall our observations of nature, but are freer to be inventive
Night Passage by Mitchell Albala, 2006,
oil painting on panel, 20 x
It's September and the plein air painting
season is drawing
to a close (at least for those of us in the unfortunate climes). As I've been
working with students in my workshops and painting outside on my own, I've been
reflecting on the nature of observation
and the different way I think about color when working outdoors and when I'm
working in the studio.
When I'm in the studio I usually work from photos. I use them to
explore compositional options or reference the particulars of a subject, such
as drawing and detail, but I never
use the photo to reference color. (In fact, I consider copying photographic
color one of the biggest faux
pas a painter can make.) In the studio I invent color. I may call upon
my years of experience observing color in nature, but the colors are my own.
There's no talk in my head that says, "Well that's a blue sky, so I need to
make it blue." I'm not attempting to match colors in nature in that way.
Instead, I develop a color strategy that fits my particular goals for that
When I'm outside, however, it's a very different story. There I
am engaged in an intense conversation with nature, observing the colors before
me, attempting to perform a type of direct translation. I am trying to mix
colors that are close to what I am seeing--identifying the particular hue, how
brilliant or dull that hue is, and of course the value. If I see a subtle
orange hue in the treetops, I try to mix the color as I see it. This is what
colorists refer to as perceived
color. Perceived color is the color of something as it actually appears to our
eye under the influence of a particular color of light. Local color, on the other hand, corresponds to
our preconceived idea of what color something is, based on previous experience,
such as green grass or blue skies.
Now any landscape painter (or painter of any genre, for that
matter) who has ever attempted to translate natural light into pigment knows
that mere pigment and canvas can never match the brilliance and intensity of
natural light. In my book, Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for
Plein Air and Studio Practice, I explain, "This is because natural
light and painter's pigments are not the same thing. The sky illuminates
brilliantly. It breathes light. The canvas only reflects light; it cannot
actually glow. The brilliance of nature--the intensity of a field of sun-struck
poppies or the radiance of the sun dancing on the water--is simply not
possible with paint." All our efforts to work with color in a representational
way must take this into account. So we compensate by manipulating color and
value beyond what is actually seen in nature. We use the colors we see in the
natural world as a starting point, but getting the "right" color is never about
matching color hue-for-hue.
and Asphalt by Mitchell Albala, 2012, oil
on paper, 7.5 x 14.
In the plein air piece at right, I was most interested in
capturing the glare of brilliant sunlight light on the streets as the sun set.
Can I truly do that with mere paint and pigment? Never. But with an eye
toward perceived color, I am engaged in the plein air painter's most essential
form of observation. See more paintings from the Azure and Asphalt series
at my portfolio site.
When directly observing nature there is a strong urge to follow
perceived color and "paint what we see" (insofar as the limitations of paint
and canvas allow). But even within the constraints of that exercise there is a
difference between engaging in direct observation that respects perceived color
and making the color up entirely. If we are simply going to select colors that
have no relationship with the actual landscape, then we are missing the plein
air painter's most important observational exercise. Perceived color is like
the Rosetta Stone of plein air painting. It allows us to take the rich and
varied colors of natural light and translate them into paint and canvas.
Peak in Sunlight by Mitchell
oil on panel, 12 x 12.
In the painting at left executed in the studio, I am
also very interested in the glare of sunlight. But unlike Azure and Asphalt (above),
which is based on an observed color experience, Border Peak uses color in a more
inventive way. I may recall what the glare of brilliant sunlight looks like and
how it felt to me, but to capture those sensations in the studio, I don't refer
to the photo. Instead I build a unique color strategy that fits my vision
for that particular painting.
Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape
Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
(Watson-Guptill, 2009). Find him on Facebook
from Landscape Painting: Essential
Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice:
Real Light vs. Panter's Light: The Limitations of Paint - page
Plein Air Demonstration - page 152
Studio Demonstration - page 156
Plein Air Painting: Beginning at the Source - page 34
from the blog:
Matt Smith on
the Synergy Between Plein Air and Studio Painting
On Location with
Stasinos and Albala: Same Subject, Different Visions