Gurney Journey | category: Plein Air Painting | (page 19 of 22)


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

Transparency of Water

When light rays angle down toward the surface of still water, some of the rays bounce off the surface (reflection) and some travel down into it (refraction). Thanks to refracted light, we’re able to see the bottom, and the water looks transparent.

Transparency of WaterThis painting by the Russian landscapist Zhukovsky shows both reflections and transparency. (The image is from Agni Art, a good source for inexpensive prints of Russian paintings.)

Transparency of Water
Above, the water is almost entirely transparent, with just a few slithery slashes of blue sky reflections to suggest the moving stream. (From the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery, a website that catalogs all his works.)

In three previous posts: (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) we looked at water reflections, but this time, let’s also consider transparency.
Transparency of WaterThe relative amounts of reflected and refracted light depends on the angle that the rays touch the water surface. For this reason, when you look steeply down into water, it looks more transparent, and when you look straight out across the water, all you see are reflections.

Transparency of Water
In the lower right of this study, you can see the streambed because you’re looking steeply downward, but higher up in the scene, the blue reflections of the sky take over.

Same thing in the study below. There’s mostly sky reflection at (1) and there’s more transparency at (2). In the area marked (3), the tones of the riverbottom are darker because the reflected skylight is interrupted by the mass of the rock. Polarized sunglasses will also selectively remove some of the glare of reflected skylight, allowing you to see more of the transparency (or refracted) rays.

Transparency of Water
In (4) you can see the edge of the last high tide. The tide was coming in as I painted this, covering the rocks one by one, and darkening them as it did so. Because blue light is scattered away and subtracted from the light illuminating subsurface rocks, they look darker and warmer than the rocks above the surface.

Traffic Cones

No urban painter is properly equipped without traffic cones.

Traffic ConesBefore you begin painting a street scene, place two cones in the street in front of you to secure the view. If you don’t, a 12-foot high delivery truck will park right in front of you.

Traffic ConesNo one will question the authority of traffic cones, especially if you stencil them with official-looking markings.

Traffic ConesThey also come in handy as distinctive apparel to wear to gallery openings.

Backlit Branches

I did this quick 3.5 x 5 inch watercolor a few days ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What interested me was the area where the trees are in front of the shadow side of the building.

Backlit BranchesThe sunlight is coming toward us from the right side. The end of the building is in shadow. This sets up a perfect backdrop for showing the light gray mass of branches catching the morning sunshine. The stripes of rooftiles can just be discerned through the branches.

As often happens in plein air studies, the amount of detail in the scene is almost infinitely complex. You can’t possibly capture every tiny branch and detail, especially at this scale, so the challenge becomes how best to suggest more than you actually define.

Backlit BranchesI splayed out the tip of the watercolor brush and drybrushed around the light branches, and also drybrushed the branches that were darker than the sky. After everything was dry, I scratched out a few more branches with the tip of a folding knife.

Backlit Branches
It’s interesting (and a little embarrassing) to compare the photo after the fact. The drawing errors in scale and perspective become obvious right away. I missed a lot of color that was going on in the shadow. But I’m surprised that the photo seems to have completely missed the quality I liked best about the scene—the backlit bare branches.

Politics, Prose and Painting

Politics, Prose and PaintingYesterday at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC, 110 fourth-graders from three different schools attended my PowerPoint and Magic Marker presentation.

Politics, Prose and PaintingAfterwards I met up with my artist friends Patrick O’Brien (left) and Armand Cabrera (right).

Armand and I set up our pochade boxes to paint the Chinese restaurant across the street from the bookstore. Jeanette stood, holding her watercolor sketchbook. There was a steady stream of curious spectators on the busy sidewalk behind us.

Politics, Prose and PaintingTwo guys stopped on their way to delivering beer to a pub called Buck’s Hunting and Fishing. They wondered if we were having a painting contest. (photo courtesy Patrick O’Brien).

Politics, Prose and PaintingHere are the Three Stooges deep in concentration.

An old man stopped beside me. He folded a newspaper and put it under his arm. “Something you might want to know about that building,” he said. “The guy who owned it in the 1940s baked German pastries for President Roosevelt. He baked them right there in that building.”

“Didn’t someone have to taste the food to make sure it wasn’t poisoned?” I asked. He just laughed. “It was different in those days.”

Politics, Prose and PaintingOne by one the chefs from the restaurant ran across Connecticut Avenue to see what we were doing. They commented among themselves in Chinese. After they returned, a big cloud of garlic smoke billowed out from the exhaust vent.

A little kid came by, dragging his mom. “That’s AWESOME,” he said.

Politics, Prose and Painting
A woman with a shiny purse said, “Why are you painting that place? It is the ugliest building around here.” Then she looked at my picture. “But you made it look beautiful.” I told her that I tried to paint it just the way it was without changing anything.

Politics, Prose and Painting
Here’s my painting in two different stages. Some of the construction lines, drawn in umber with a bristle brush, still appear in the block-in at left. At right was how it looked when I quit.

Politics, Prose and PaintingThe painting wasn’t really finished, just abandoned after about two and a half hours. Near the end of the afternoon, the sun popped out from behind the clouds, bleaching out the pink and green colors of the awning.

Tomorrow: Backlit Bare Branches


A tree presents a complex silhouette against the sky, but the silhouette is almost never completely solid. A few “skyholes” puncture the shape of the tree and let you see through to the light beyond.

In this detail of a Claude Lorrain, there are fewer than ten skyholes painted in the lower third of the main tree. I’ve noticed that the early landscapists were sparing with skyholes.

This detail by Corot shows skyholes nearer the top margin of the trees. Some appear as fairly active circular shapes, which draws attention to them.

Constant Troyon, as seen in this detail, painted skyholes of various sizes, and gave them a ragged character, to suggest that they were fringed with leaves.

One question that every painter in opaque media like oil, gouache, or acrylic faces: Should you paint a skyhole with the same exact color as the sky beyond?

If you compare a photograph to the paintings we’ve seen, it appears much more complex and full of infinite variety. In the center of the photo I’ve placed the number 1 next to a prominent skyhole, and the number 2 surrounded by a group of smaller skyholes.

An enlargement reveals that while the larger skyhole does present an uninterrupted view of the sky, the smaller skyholes contain a network of fine branches and tiny leaves that weren't apparent from a distance.

These tiny interruptions lessen the amount of light passing through from the sky. As a result, these skyholes should really be painted a little darker than the actual sky color beyond.

Images from ARC, Link.

Tomorrow: Your Art-by-Committee Sketches

Warm Underpainting

Here’s a brief but important post for Color Sunday. If you prime your panels with a tint of venetian red or burnt sienna, you can get a good base for many kinds of paintings.

Warm Underpainting
A warm underpainting is especially helpful for paintings of skies or foliage, or any painting with a blue or green tonality. The little bits of color that inevitably remain between your strokes will make blues or greens sparkle by complementary contrast.

An insistent warm underpainting also can act to force you to cover the background with opaques. This 6 by 4 inch painting of an elephant from the zoo is just partially finished. Normally I would cover the entire red-orange surface with opaque paint.

Warm UnderpaintingFor plein air painting I use Gamblin oil priming, which I buy in a quart tin, and tint it using using a palette knife on a scrap of palette paper. A drop or two of cobalt drier will get the priming to set up overnight if you’re prepping for a painting trip.

For studio work I will more often prime with gesso tinted with acrylic, as this surface allows for a pencil preliminary drawing.

The Delicate Approach

Some things that you want to paint are beefy and chunky, and they call for a broad handling with hefty bristle brushes. (Below: detail of a rocky waterfall).

The Delicate Approach
But other forms are feathery and delicate. Think of the leaves of a willow tree, the wispy texture of a cirrus cloud, or the waving tassels of a wheatfield. These call for pianissimo painting.

The Delicate Approach
Here’s the view past my easel. I was standing at the river’s edge near Clonmel, Ireland. It was an unusual vista, with intricate foliage framing a light sky. There were no simple blocky masses of tone. Instead there were lots of slender twigs, and there were layers upon layers of leaves.

The Delicate Approach
After a thinly stated preliminary lay-in, I painted the sky with just a thin veil of pale whites and blues. For the willow leaves (detail, above) I dragged a large bristle brush very lightly over the sky to suggest a lot of leaves without actually painting them one by one. I then added a few small strokes at the edge of the mass using a round sable.

The same is true of the upper fringe of foliage. I blocked the big masses of foliage with a large square brush and then added a fringe of individual leaves with a smaller brush. The goal is to give the impression that you’re seeing more detail than is actually stated.

The Delicate Approach
The final painting is 8x10 inches, painted in one session of about three hours. Most of the detail is hinted at. The key to this kind of painting is to use the biggest brushes you can, but to use them very lightly, dragging and scumbling. Then in a few areas, you can use tiny brushes to suggest the most delicate forms.

P.S. Thanks to Kim Barker of LakeTrees for listing GurneyJourney as the #7 Artist's Blog and thanks to everybody who has linked.

Tomorrow: Matania—Without a Net

Plein Air Ancestors

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently remodeled its display of 19th century painting. The curators have brought a lot of gems out of storage and put them on permanent display in the Henry J. Heinz II Galleries.

Plein Air AncestorsAmong the highlights are four rooms with dozens of oil studies painted outdoors by the pioneers of plein-air painting in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Most of these artists were northern Europeans who flocked to Italy for the warmth and the golden light.

Plein Air Ancestors
Here’s a stormy landscape near Rome, circa 1800, painted by Simon Denis (1755-1813). He was working quickly to capture a fleeting rainbow effect. His work preceded the era of photography, the Impressionists, the Hudson River School, and even Constable and Corot.

Denis was painting four decades before the invention of collapsible paint tubes. He had to either grind his pigments on location or carry prepared paints in pigs’ bladders obtained from the butcher.

Plein Air AncestorsHere is a view from the Quirinal Hill in Rome, 1800, also by Denis. He carefully rendered the distant town and the central rooftops. I’m guessing that he was working from the view out of his hotel window, and that he ran out of time.

Plein Air Ancestors
The alley at right is unfinished, which gives a glimpse into his method. He blocked in the big planes first and probably intended to add windows and other details later.

Plein Air Ancestors
Antoine Xavier Gabriel de Gazeau (French, 1801–1881), painted this on-the-spot study of the Gate to the Temple of Luxor in 1836. Drifting sand covers the collossal figures to chest height.

Plein Air Ancestors
At the top of the building at right you can see his transparent block-in, with the lower half of the wall mostly covered with a semi-opaque second layer. I would speculate that this was painted in two sittings of about two hours each.

These paintings look like they were painted yesterday. One of the remarkable qualities of plein air work is that it escapes the conventional formulas of the artist’s own time. It takes every fiber of concentration to capture what you see when you’re face-to-face with nature. All the compositional formulas go out the window.

Plein Air Ancestors
The Metropolitan Museum has brought a lot of other realist paintings back into the light, giving a much more balanced view of 19th century painting. There are paintings by Gerome, Repin, Leighton, Sorolla, Mucha, Bouguereau, and Bastien-Lepage. All these rooms were crowded and buzzing with energy and interest. At last the tide is turning. Thank you, Drue Heinz, Phillipe de Montebello and the Met curators!

Metropolitan Museum’s press release about the new installations. Link.
New York Times coverage, Link.
Article by A. Malafronte on the history of plein air painting, Link

Tomorrow: Bronze Weathering

Multi-Colored Streetlights

Before electricity, there were basically two colors of light at night: blue-grey moonlight (or twilight), and orange lamplight. Below is a painting by the French boulevard painter Edouard Cortes (1882-1969), who specialized in Paris by lamplight.

Multi-Colored StreetlightsAs electric lighting replaced flame-based light, new colors entered the nightscape. Fluorescent light has a yellow-green cast. Sodium vapor gives off a harshly monochromatic orange. Mercury vapor’s blue-green color drains the blood out of flesh tones. Other kinds of lights: metal halide, LED, neon, and arc lamps, each have their own color qualities. You’ve probably noticed the variety when flying over a city at night.

Multi-Colored StreetlightsI painted this little oil sketch from observation while balancing on a hotel balcony in the predawn light in Anaheim, California. The technique is fairly crude—and a bit smudged from when I accidentally dropped it. What interested me was the contrast between the orange sodium vapor (foreground) and the green mercury vapor (middle ground).

Multi-Colored Streetlights
I originally did this 8x10 inch oil sketch in 1995 as a concept for a Dinotopia theme park. Recently I reworked the central boat and reused the image in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. It has three different regions of colored light: blue in the foreground, red-orange across the canal, and blue-green through the arch. The colors are arbitrary; I don't know what kind of lights Dinotopians are using.

Multi-Colored Streetlights
Syd Mead, the “visual futurist” who helped design Blade Runner, is an inventive colorist who orchestrates colored light in many of his science fiction paintings. In this futuristic street scene, yellow, green, and blue light each occupy different spatial regions.

Multi-Colored StreetlightsIn this concept sketch by Mead, a mechanical creature stands above a circle of warm light, while a saturated, monochromatic cyan illumination infuses the rest of the scene. The effect is magical and otherworldly.

Multi-Colored Streetlights
Japanese artist Teppei Sasakura also specializes in colored illumination, which he uses here to create a playful, exotic, kaleidoscopic effect.

Here are some tips if you want to experiment with colored light:

  1. Try painting a plaster cast, a figure, or a still life lit by two or three contrasting gel-covered lights. Try to shield the motif from all other light influences.
  2. Keep in mind that mixtures of colored light are different from paint mixtures. For example red plus green equals yellow.
  3. Try some urban night painting, using a portable LED light to illuminate your palette.
  4. Set your camera to daylight (rather than white balance) and photograph a color wheel under different street lights; then compare the digital photos side by side to see how the colors are skewed.
  5. Start a scrap file of magazine photos that show modern cityscapes at night.

Wikipedia/History of Streetlighting, Link.
Sky and Telescope article with a spectral output chart, Link.
Joe Maurath's gallery of vintage streetlighting, Link
More boulevard scenes by Edouard Cortes at ARC, link
More on Syd Mead, link.
For more on Teppei Sasakura, link.

Tomorrow: Art by Committee
Transparency of WaterTraffic ConesBacklit BranchesPolitics, Prose and PaintingSkyholesProfile PortraitWarm UnderpaintingThe Delicate ApproachPlein Air AncestorsMulti-Colored Streetlights

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