Watercolor: Lee Boynton: Painting the Same Subject to Learn More About Light & Color

16 Sep 2006

0611boyt1_450x300_1Lee Boynton, a master of Impressionistic watercolor painting, explains how to learn more about color and value by simplifying your subject and painting it repeatedly under different light conditions.      

by Linda Gottlieb and M. Stephen Doherty

0611boyt1_450x300
Cozy Harbor, Sunny Day
2004, watercolor 7 x 10.
All artwork this article
collection the artist
unless otherwise indicated.

The late-afternoon
sun transformed the
white building in this
painting into a subtle
yellow against a strong
blue-violet in the shadow.
The red-shingled roof
is magenta-violet against
the light. The warmth
in all the lit objects
reads as a sunny summer day

The first thing Maryland artist Lee Boynton wants students to understand is that Impressionism is not a definable technique but a way of seeing. The primary aim of the Impressionist painter is to express the effect of light on the objects in a scene through the purity of color in the lighted parts contrasted with the shadows. Boynton uses the same extensive palette of tube watercolors when painting landscapes outdoors or in his studio; but the selection of colors, relationship of colors, and sequence of application vary considerably depending on the relative value and color temperature of the scene he plans to paint. The most critical aspects of learning to paint landscapes in the Impressionist manner are selecting a simple combination of landscape elements, taking time to evaluate the differences in the lighting conditions, becoming familiar with the value relationships of the masses, and painting that scene a number of times under different light and weather conditions.

Boynton’s approach differs from a traditional approach to watercolor painting in several important ways. He mostly paints wet-in-wet, letting colors mix on the paper, but he aims to paint colors directly and boldly rather than gradually layering paint to build up the painting. Color is the most important consideration in choosing paint, not whether the paint is transparent or opaque. The exception to the importance of transparency/opacity is Chinese white, which he mixes with other paint for the technique he has developed to express broken color in watercolor.  Chinese white is semiopaque and must be used instead of titanium white or gouache, which are completely opaque.

The technique for depicting broken color is perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Boynton’s painting process, so it’s worth describing first. He uses it primarily to depict the combination of warm and cool colors in the same area, such as a sunny sky. In a sunny area, the warmth is put down first, with the cool color over it. In shadow, the cool color is applied first, then the warm. In a sunny sky, for example, the warm color is usually pinkish, yellowish, or orangeish. The exact color, intensity, and temperature of the warmth will depend on the season, weather, and time of day. The warmth may be cooled somewhat by mixing Chinese white or Naples yellow into it. After wetting the area, Boynton floods the warm color into it.  He immediately mixes Chinese white with a cool blue and floats it over the first statement, allowing some of the warmth to show through. “Using Chinese white is now considered to be something of a criminal act among traditional watercolorists, but the fact is that many great artists—including J.M.W. Turner and John Singer Sargent—used a semiopaque white (sometimes called body color),” Boynton explains. “I stumbled upon it as an effective way of putting one color on top of another without them mixing. I wanted to depict both the warmth and coolness in the sky I was painting. At the time, the sky was an ultramarine violet. I found that mixing Chinese white with the cool color allowed it to float over the warmth without mixing with it; both the warm and cool colors retained their integrity and created a perfect, warm sky. If I had used the same two colors without mixing them with Chinese white, they would have merged to create a dull gray that would have been completely inappropriate and, worse, lifeless.”

0611boyt2_450x300
Cozy Harbor, Gray Day
2004, watercolor, 7 x 10.

There is limited contrast
of light and shadow here;
the only cast shadow is
under the building. There
is more local color: the
trees are an earthy olive
green and the roof is redder
and appears lighter and
brighter because the light
is shining down on it.
The minimal shadows are
bluer and the shadow under
the building is not as
dark as in the sunny-day
painting.

To help his students better understand the way light affects color, Boynton recommends that they find a nearby location where they can paint without a lot of advance preparation, travel, or set up; and he advises them to focus on a section of that landscape in which there is a simple arrangement of sky, trees, and ground plane (either a body of water or an open field). “The point is for the subject to remain constant so one can better observe the changing light conditions,” Boynton says. “Find a convenient location where you can paint during two-hour intervals from sunup to sundown.

“The first visits to this location should be on sunny days,” Boynton continues. “Don’t move on to gray days until you can successfully paint sunny days, when the light effect is more obvious. Study the light and shadow, and make a thumbnail black-and-white painting to compose the masses and get a sneak preview of the intended painting. On each visit to the site, ask yourself, ‘How is this different than the last time I painted it?’ With each new painting, make another black-and-white painting to study the value relationships under different light conditions. Then familiarize yourself with what makes that day and time unique. Generally speaking, you’ll see that the pinks of early morning give way to stronger orange colors, and by noon the conditions are best described with more yellow. If you only spend two hours on a small watercolor (roughly 7" x 10"), you’ll be able to paint those subtle changes and, thereby, gain a better understanding of how the position of the sun, which changes with the seasons and times of day, affects colors in the landscape.”

Painting Sunny Days
To explain how students can approach the challenge of painting the changing light effect in the same landscape, Boynton reviewed a series of watercolors he did at Spa Creek near his home in Annapolis, Maryland. He first described how he painted the effects of warm light in the early morning. “I started by painting the sky because it was the lightest value, and watercolor painting usually progresses from light to dark,” he remembers. The sky is very important because it sets the relationships of value and color for the rest of the painting. “First, I prewet that area of the watercolor paper and flooded the shape with a warm mixture of cadmium orange and Chinese white to cool the color, using more orange in the area along the horizon since that tends to be the warmest band,” Boynton says. “Then I immediately combined cerulean blue and Chinese white on my palette and laid that wet-in-wet over the orange color. The two colors must be equally wet and must have the same or very similar values. The objective here was to use broken color to achieve both the warmth and the coolness in the sky, so I did not cover the orange completely with the blue. Also, notice that the sky is bluer at the zenith, shading down to more orange just above the trees. That gave the perfect description of a warm morning sky.”

0611boyt3_450x300
Severn River, Sunny Day
2004, watercolor, 81/2 x 20.

This early fall day has
both sun and clouds. The
shaded undersides of the
clouds are cooler, but their
sides receive a lot of light
and are warmer while yellow
sunlight is evident in the trees.
The yellow clouds reflect into
the still water and the tree
and cliff reflections are almost
identical in color to the trees
and cliffs, although the
reflections are darker.

Boynton next described how he painted the body of water at Spa Creek. “The ground plane is always slightly darker than the sky even when it’s water,” he says. “That’s an important subtlety in painting water, which is not a mirror of the sky because it absorbs some of the light. The warmth of the sky reflected in the water is a little darker and brighter than the sky above the horizon. There is a little more orange-yellow than in the sky. The water shows a gradation from darker and brighter colors in the foreground to lighter and cooler blues in the distance. The mass of the water was put down first with the same color throughout; the reflections were put over it in a drier statement.” Boynton intentionally paints an object’s reflection in the water—in this case the piling—to make it clearly look like water.

“Always start with the warmth in a sunlit mass,” Boynton continues. “I prewet the whole water area of the paper and mixed together Naples yellow, cadmium orange, and Chinese white to cool the mixture and flood it into the shape of the water. I immediately applied a mixture of Chinese white and cobalt blue over the water shape, allowing the orange underneath to show through. It is imperative to understand that the relationship of the water to the sky is more important than the specific colors used. Each scene will be different, and you must not fall into the trap of using certain colors all the time in a rote manner. Once again the presence of the Chinese white mixed into the cool color allowed it to float over the warm color instead of mixing with it.

“Color in nature is not homogeneous,” Boynton adds as a way of further explaining why he uses cool over warm colors as a way to describe a sunlit mass landscape painting. “Monet saw this as broken color; with the use of Chinese white I have found that warm and cool colors can be put together in watercolor to achieve the effect of a sunlit mass.”

Continuing to describe his process of painting the light effect at Spa Creek, Boynton explains how he next painted the mass of trees. “I first had to do some investigation,” he says. When I arrived at the scene one early morning to paint Spa Creek, Sunny Day 1, there was warm sunlight on the trees. Overall, the trees were darker than the sky or the water, and the tree mass was painted from light to dark, or from warm sun to cool shadow.

0611boyt4_450x300
Severn River, Gray Day
2004, watercolor, 7 x 10.

The stormy sky creates a dark,
brooding effect, with little
filtered light shining down. This
is particularly evident in the trees.
The value and color in the trees
become bluer and lighter toward
the distance, and the wind
in the trees is articulated by
sharp drybrush shapes.

“You must look at the tree mass as light and shadow, learning to see the color of light as a statement of the warmth of the sun against the shadow—which is best expressed with a cooler color,” Boynton continues. The warmth in a sunlit mass must be put in first. “In the trees, the intense warmth of this sunny day was emphasized by using strong yellows mixed with blue, using more yellow than blue. Likewise, using strong, cool colors in the shadow emphasizes the contrast. Using a cool yellow in the distance and strong yellows in the foreground makes the distance recede. Variations in the sunlit trees were added while the paint was still wet, making them greener toward their bases. Variations within a mass are added when wet; shadows are added when the mass has dried so their edges are sharp enough to capture the strong light and shadow contrast of a sunny day. Variations within the shadows are also darker and stronger in the foreground, while cooler and lighter colors make the distant shadows recede.”

Painting Gray Days
The subject Boynton provided for painting a predominantly gray morning was the same Spa Creek scene that he used to demonstrate the sunny-day painting. “Spa Creek, Gray Day 1 has an entirely different color scheme than Spa Creek, Sunny Day 1,” Boynton explains. “It lacks most of the colors used to represent the warmth of the sun. Instead of the yellow-orange of a sunny day, the colors are earthier, which is typical of a gray day. There is some warmth, but it is filtered through the clouds veiling the sun. This overcast day has its own a quiet beauty expressed in its own color language.   

“Again, the artist must see beyond the local color cliché,” Boynton continues. “There is no gray on my palette, so the gray-day effect must be represented using other colors. In the sky there is a tiny amount of cool earthy yellow, with a dark blue-violet/Chinese white painted over it when it was wet. It is a quiet color. Sometimes a cloudy sky is consistently steely; it can be made more interesting, as has been done here, by creating variation with some nebulous cloud shapes. There is also some gradation from the horizon to the zenith. This effect is almost devoid of warmth because of the thickness of the clouds.

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Spa Creek, Sunny Day 1
2005, watercolor, 7 x 10. 

“The slight warmth of the sky reflects onto the water, but the water is a little darker and deeper in color than the sky,” Boynton says. “The extreme cloudiness creates a slight greenish tint to the water. The relative lack of ripples is typical of a calm, gray day, so the reflections are less broken up. What is remarkable about a gray day is the unity of color throughout. Although a sunny day is about contrast, gray days are about harmony. In this scene, all the masses were painted with nearly the same quiet colors. The variety is in value, not color. An axiom to remember for a gray day is that the sky colors fall upon the earth. The more inclement the conditions, the thicker the atmosphere—and the more the masses tend to melt together.

0611boyt6_450x300
Spa Creek, Gray Day 1
2005, watercolor, 7 x 10.

“In the tree mass, the warmth is also minimal,” Boynton adds. “You can still see the darker tree line against the sky, but it has started to melt into the atmosphere. Because there is dim skylight rather than strong, direct sunlight, the color of the sky falling on the trees makes them a violet mass with greener variations. Without the yellow sunlight, the local color is more evident. There is very little contrast between light and shadow. In the distance, light and shadow melt together, rather than sharply contrasting, so the very slight shadows were added wet-in-wet. The shadows in the middle ground and foreground were added in progressively drier statements. The paint mixture for the shadows was a lot more watery and also had more white to make the shadows lighter and milky like the atmosphere. The Chinese white is not mixed with a color as a hiding agent but to modify the color by cooling it and to demonstrate atmosphere.”   

About the Artist
Lee Boynton received his B.F.A. from Syracuse University, in New York, and continued his studies at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, and at the Cape Cod School of Art, in Provincetown, Massachusetts. His paintings have been selected for leading national and international exhibitions, most notably the “Arts for the Parks Top 100” exhibition, and the “Mystic International” exhibition. He is the founder of the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association, which sponsors the annual Paint Annapolis during the fourth weekend in September, and teaches workshops in Maryland, Maine, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Florida, and Illinois. Visit Boynton's website for more information.

Linda Gottlieb is a freelance writer who holds master’s degrees in English and counseling psychology. She studied painting with Lee Boynton and collaborated with him to create the book Painting the Impressionist Watercolor (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York). She lives near Annapolis, Maryland.

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief of American Artist.

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