Gurney Journey | category: Plein Air Painting | (page 20 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.

Serial Painting

Claude Monet is probably the best-known serial painter, though he was not the first: Corot and Turner had tried the experiment decades earlier.

In the 1890s Monet experimented with painting the same motif several times—each time from the same angle, but under different conditions of light and atmosphere. These images were conceived, executed, and exhibited as a group.

Serial Painting
Here are just four out of the 30 studies that he did of the Rouen Cathedral. He didn’t get too caught up in the mind-bending complexity of detail in the cathedral façade.

Instead he developed a way of painting to convey his sense of the transitory light effects, from the warm frontal lighting in the upper right image to the veils of mist in the lower right. The worthiness of his approach comes across best when you see the paintings next to each other.

Monet approached other subjects as a series. He painted matched sets of grainstacks, spring meadows, ice floes, poppies, the city of London, the Creuse Valley, and the Seine River.

During a painting vacation in central California, I thought I’d try Monet’s idea, maybe not for 30 paintings, but at least for a couple. I painted the first one in the morning. The first light touched the farthest range of mountains and began to sweep across the hills in the left foreground. The colors in the central mountain mass were cool and close in value.

Serial PaintingSerial Painting
I returned in the afternoon to find everything transformed. The far hills blazed with browns and oranges of the chaparral lit by the warm light. The jagged landforms became insistent. The sky appeared relatively darker and more saturated.

This little experiment was a reminder that the colors I actually mixed for my painting owed more to the particular conditions of light and atmosphere than to the local or innate color of the objects themselves.

Or to put it another way, color in landscape is less a property of material surfaces than it is of effects of light and air. You see this principle most forcefully when you try painting a series.

Nathan Fowkes, a conceptual designer for DreamWorks Animation and an instructor at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art produced one of the most impressive examples of serial painting.

Serial Painting
Looking out of his workplace window during breaks, he created this array of 36 paintings of the same Los Angeles valley scene. The non-descript white buildings and the far hills take on a limitless range of transformations as the haze and light shimmers and changes. No two are alike, and no camera could have registered these subtle nuances.

Note that blue shadows on the buildings tend to occur on days with blue skies. The colors of the distant mountains vary from earthy browns to pale pinks to soft blues.

If you want to try a series experiment, here are a few tips:

  1. Choose a motif that has a piece of sky, some distant reaches of space or mountains, and ideally a house or other white object with planes facing in different directions, because white is the best register of colored light.
  2. You can paint the images either on a set of separate panels, or tape off a larger board into equal size increments. But as you work on each study, don’t look at the previous ones.
  3. Keep the drawing consistent each time, so that the only variable is the light and color. Spend the first day working out the drawing for all the panels, or do one careful line drawing, photocopy it, and glue identical copies down on each separate panel.
  4. Paint the subject in different times of day, and if you can, different seasons of the year.

Nathan Fowkes's Blog, Link.
Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art, Link.
1990 New York Times review of a Monet serial exhibition, Link.

Tomorrow: Strange Tree

Downfacing Planes

Most of the time we think of shadows as blue. Surfaces in shadows do tend toward blue if they are facing upward beneath an open stretch of sky. We can make a general rule if we hedge it a bit: “Upfacing planes in shadow are relatively blue on a sunny day.”

Downfacing PlanesIn the sketch of the library in Millbrook, New York, I observed plenty of bluish color in the cast shadows on the sidewalk, for example.

Downfacing PlanesBut planes in shadow that face downward are different because they pick up the warm reflected color of illuminated surfaces below them. You can see this effect in the white pediment. Where the projecting forms faced downward, they’re distinctly orange, not blue at all.

Downfacing PlanesSo let’s revise that quick rule of thumb about the color of shadows: “In shadows, upfacing planes are cool, and downfacing planes are warm.“ If you click on the photo above, taken at Bryce Canyon by Tobey Sanford, you can see the cool upfacing planes (1), and the warm downfacing planes (2). What you can't see are my knees shaking.

Tomorrow: Baseball Cap Space Helmet

Lorrain Mirrors

For centuries artist have used darkened mirrors and smoked lenses to help them view a real landscape in simplified tonal values.

Lorrain Mirrors
By the nineteenth century these optical devices became widely known as “Lorrain mirrors” or “Claude glasses.” Their darkened reflections suggested the work of landscape painter Claude Lorrain (1604?-1682). Lorrain himself, though, probably never used them. The name appeared long after his death, and for a time the devices were associated with the English poet, Thomas Gray (1716-1771).

Lorrain Mirrors
Antique Lorrain mirrors were usually elliptical and slightly convex to allow the viewer to see the entire scene in miniature.
Lorrain MirrorsHere’s a simple homemade Lorrain mirror fashioned out of an ordinary piece of glass painted black on one side. The backside and edges were then protected with tape. In a pinch you could get the same effect by looking at the reflection in a lens of your sunglasses cupped in your hand.

For artists nowadays, the benefit of studying a darkened reflection is that it desaturates the colors, reduces the detail, and organizes the tones. By grouping the darks together into large masses, the vista takes on a romantic or picturesque aura. You can immediately see how to proceed with your tonal design. It’s easier to compare the relative brightness of light values—such as clouds compared to white buildings.

Lorrain Mirrors
Here’s a photo manipulated with Photoshop to simulate the effect. I occasionally use Lorrain mirrors to help me choose a motif, or study it before commencing to paint. They’re also helpful for a mid-course check during the painting. They guard against the tendency we all have to lighten the values of the shadows, which results from our eyes adjusting to the dark areas and seeing too much detail in them.

If you prefer looking through a transparent viewer rather than seeing a reflection in a mirror, you can improvise your own Lorrain glass using a dark gray filter, a welding goggle, or an unexposed piece of film.

Lorrain Mirrors
In an era before photography, both artists and tourists enjoyed the novelty of looking at real landscapes through gold- or blue-tinted Lorrain glasses. A heroine from an English play dating from 1798 said, as she peered through her warm-tinted glass: “How gorgeously glowing.” Then switching to a dark glass, she said, “How gloomily glaring.” Finally, looking through a cobalt-tinted glass, she exclaimed, “How frigidly frozen.”

For more:
Tintern Abbey Viewing Station with live Lorrain mirror webcam. Link.
Archived webcam shots show changes of light through the day. Link.

Final quote from Spectacles and Other Vision Aids: A History and Guide to Collecting, by J. William Rosenthal. p. 276,
Tomorrow: Color Wheel Masking

Sky Panels

We take it for granted that all landscape painting in oil should be undertaken “alla prima,” that is, starting with a blank canvas and completing the entire statement in one session, keeping all the adjacent areas wet together. Below is a tree that I painted in this way.

Sky Panels
Alla prima is a great way to work if you want a soft, painterly handling, but it can be a problem if you want to describe intricate details against a light sky, because the wet paint of the sky interferes with the dark strokes that you want to place on top.

Sky Panels
Earlier painters generally didn’t work alla prima, at least not in the studio. Painters before the advent of Impressionism would typically paint a sky first, let it dry, and then paint the trees and other foreground elements over dry passages.

Sky Panels
I have experimented with applying this idea to plein air painting and I can recommend it to you as an option. The tree study above was done in this way. It’s useful in situations where your chief interest is in the complex middle-ground tracery: road signs, telephone poles, sailing ships, trees, or intricate cloud formations.

The cloud study (detail, below) which I showed in an earlier post, was painted over a cloud-free sky panel.

Sky PanelsSince clear skies are fairly standard and predictable, you can prepare a set of “sky panels” a few days in advance of an outdoor painting session. Cover the sky panel with a typical gradation of sky-colored pigments, and let it dry completely.

Sky Panels
Later in the field you can rub the surface with a thin layer of oil painting medium to make it receptive. You can then paint the foreground details of trees or foliage without any danger of the sky color lifting up and mixing with the dark colors of the branches or leaves.

Tomorrow: L’Art Pompier

Moving Mountains

How much did the Hudson River School painters alter what they saw? Did they move mountains and trees around to make a better landscape composition?

Moving MountainsThe quick answer is that they moved rocks and trees, but not mountains.

Moving MountainsThanks to the work of John J. Henderson and Roger E. Belson of the White Mountain Art and Artists organization of New Hampshire, you can see for yourself. Mr. Henderson has taken photos from the same vantage points that the 19th Century artists used, giving us a remarkable chance to compare each painting with the scene that inspired it.

Moving MountainsIt’s hard to be exactly sure what foregrounds the artists were looking at 150 years ago, but it’s clear that they drew the mountain contours very carefully. They may have increased the height a bit, but they were faithful to the silhouette.

Moving MountainsThe issue of mountain contours was a hot topic among 19th Century landscape painters. Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), one of the co-founders of the Hudson River School, and its most influential writer, addressed the subject in his Letters on Landscape Painting (1855). The artist, he said, may:
…displace a tree, for instance, if disagreeable, or render it a more perfect one of its kind if retained, but the elevations and depressions of the earth’s surface composing the middle ground and distance, the magnitude of objects, and extent of space presented in the view, characteristic outline, undulating or angular, of all the great divisions, may not be changed in the least perceptible degree, most especially the mountain and hill forms. On these God has set his signet, and Art may not remove it when the picture professes to represent the scene.”

Moving Mountains
I would warrant that these very words were ringing in the ears of each of the artists who painted these pictures. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

Thanks, Chris.
For 12 more examples, visit
For more about Durand, visit
Full text of "Letters on Landscape Painting" appears in the book Kindred Spirits, by Linda Ferber, 2007

Tomorrow: Sky Panels

The Golden Hour

Here are two plein-air paintings I made during of the last hour of the same day, as the sun was setting over the Hudson River. I painted them about 15 minutes apart.

The Golden HourIn the second painting, on the right, the sun was sinking into a bank of clouds. The air was full of haze and mist, which reduced the intensity of the sun, allowing me to look safely directly towards it.

Photographers call this time of day the golden hour, or magic hour. The sun is so low in the sky that its light travels almost parallel to the surface of the earth. Or to put it more another way, the rays of light are intersecting the sphere of the earth on a line of tangent, like a needle pushed into an orange peel at a very shallow angle. Sunlight travels through much more atmosphere at this angle than when it’s coming steeply down to earth at noontime.

The Golden HourBecause of this greater distance traveled through the air, more bluish wavelengths are scattered out of each parcel of light. This makes the sky above a richer blue. The remaining sunlight is weaker in overall brightness, and more orange or red in color.

In the sky itself, there’s a noticeable progression of color from the blue above to the soft yellows and dull reds near the horizon.

The Golden Hour
If you face away from the sun, the sunlight shines on forms with a golden color, and the shadows are relatively bluish. In this painting from Dinotopia: First Flight (1999), I chose to light the scene with this warm golden hour light. The bottom half of the forms are beginning to be covered with a soft-edged cast shadow. Note that light hitting the top of the clouds behind the figures remains relatively white compared to the light that’s closer to the ground.

In fact whenever there are several layers of clouds at various altitudes, the higher clouds are always whiter because the light touching them has traveled through less atmosphere and therefore has had less blue light removed from it.

The Golden HourI painted these plein air sketches after the sun had set. But it’s still during that golden hour. If you face toward the spot where the sun set, there’s a bold red-orange glow in the sky. The ground below is dark and cool.

Here’s where a painter can beat the camera. Our eyes can see so much more color than the camera can see because they can accommodate to huge range of brilliance.

Gradually a grey layer rises up from the horizon opposite from the sun. This is the plane of the cast shadow of the earth itself.

When you’re painting golden hour colors from life, it helps to premix the colors before the moment arrives, anticipating the effect you want to capture. Then, as the light fades, you can work almost from memory as you look at the darkening colors on your palette. Or you can use a little fluorescent flashlight to illuminate your work area.

The Golden HourEventually the warm colors drain out of the sky entirely. Sometimes a soft violet glow is all that remains. At this point of dusk, artificial lights begin to stand out, like these streetlights in the small town of Corofin in Ireland. From the doorway of a little pub behind me, the sound of accordion and fiddle was just starting up for the night.

During the first hour of morning, these color progressions are reversed.

I'm usually sleeping in, but the early riser is lucky enough to behold what Wordsworth called the “vision splendid” before the colors “fade into the light of common day.”

Tomorrow: Pizza Dreams

Overcast Light, Part 2

Yesterday we looked at how the French academic masters used overcast light to orchestrate complex scenes. Those artists are a tough act to follow, but I thought you might like to see how I’ve tried to put these lessons to work in my own paintings.

To get the hang of it, I’ve done some plein air sketches in overcast weather. An example is White Church, which I showed in an earlier post.

Here’s an 8x12 inch sketch I did at a boatyard with the overcast sky just beginning to break up. I love painting in this light because it doesn’t change much, even in four or five hours. This is not the case with direct sunlight, where in the span of two hours the light completely changes.

When it came to inventing a complicated fantasy panorama like Dinosaur Parade, (1989, detail above) I used overcast light. I was also influenced by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who loved to set his scenes in indirect light, (in his case, usually open shade).

I used it again on Dinosaur Boulevard, shown in a detail below. Link for full composition. This light made it easier to show the patterns of the costumes and to render most of their forms close to their true local colors. I put a lot of haze in the air to push back the background planes.

In art school you don’t often get a chance to paint overcast light conditions because there’s no way to simulate it perfectly indoors. A very large north-facing window comes close, but studio north light is still quite directional compared to actual overcast light. Even a bank of fluorescent fixtures across the ceiling doesn’t match it exactly because the light needs to be coming equally and evenly from above.

Lighting experts in the CGI animation field told me recently that overcast light is one of the hardest light conditions to simulate on the computer because it involves such a vast number of mathematical calculations.

P.S. Thanks to Grant Butler of the Oregonian for naming Dinotopia “one of the 10 great moments in dinosaur pop culture.” Link.

Previously: Overcast Light, Part 1

Disappearing Snow

Disappearing SnowWith the thermometer over 50 degrees and the snow rapidly melting, Jeanette and I headed over to the nearby town of Rhinecliff today to paint a streetscape. In Rhinecliff, everyone gets their mail at the Post Office, so a lot of people walked by with their little kids, and you could hear the faraway sounds of hammers and radial saws.

Disappearing Snow
Here's the pochade box, with what's left of the colors: ultra blue, white, naples yellow, cadmium yellow light, burnt sienna, burnt umber, and Winsor red. Because the whole scene consisted mainly of warm and cool greys, I premixed a warm string and cool string in the center of the mixing surface and worked mostly from those colors.

Limited Palettes

Every Sunday I’ve been sharing some thoughts about color, and today I want to touch on limited palettes.

Limited PalettesWhen we were in grade school we all envied the other kid who owned the giant-size Crayola set. In the art store we still ogle the all the delicious colors.

But it’s a good idea to limit the range of color pigments or the “palette” that you use on any particular painting. There are at least four good reasons to limit your palette.

Limited Palettes1. If you have all the colors squeezed out around the edges of your mixing surface, you might tend to use them all in a single picture. I present my own book cover illustration, called “Glory Lane,” as a negative example. I did this painting as an experiment in bad taste. This is what happens if you use every color in the spectrum and fill the whole canvas with details. Visual cacophony!

Limited Palettes2. If you construct a picture out of fewer colors, the resulting mixtures are more likely to be unified and harmonious—and more interesting. Every color you mix is automatically related. It’s easier to convey a mood or to explore strange realms you wouldn’t normally choose. Magazine illustrators in the 1920s and 30s were often required to paint in two-color palettes, like the black and orange painting above by Mead Schaeffer. The two-color discipline made those old illustrators into very resourceful colorists.

Limited PalettesI painted this head study in a sketch group with just a blue and black and just a hint of warm. I wouldn’t have tried this color scheme if I weren’t forced to by a limited palette. Below is the actual color of her forehead, the warmest the colors ever get in this scheme:

Limited Palettes3. The third reason to limit the palette is to force yourself away of color mixing habits. If you have colors called “flesh tone” and “grass green,” you’ll probably reach for them when you’re painting skin or a lawn.

It’s a good idea every once in a while to leave of all your browns and greens in the cabinet and mix them from the primary colors instead. The legendary background painter of museum dioramas, James Perry Wilson, never used browns or black because he wanted to keep his mixtures more pure. There’s nothing wrong with black or brown or green, but you should know how to mix color without them, too.

Limited PalettesYou can make color wheel tests to preview the range of possibilities with limited palettes. Click to enlarge and see their component colors. Painting from one of these limited sets is like writing music for a string quartet instead of for a symphony orchestra.

4. The final reason to consider limited palettes is that they’re portable and you can save money. In fact you can paint almost anything in nature with just four or five colors. There are a lot of limited palettes that still give you a full range of mixtures. Below: a plein-air painting I did in Windham, New York.

Limited PalettesOne simplified palette that I particularly like for landscape painting in oil is from John Stobart in his excellent book, “The Pleasures of Painting Outdoors.” He recommends:

Cadmium Yellow Light, Winsor Red, Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue Deep, Permanent Green (optional), and Titanium White.

You can get a good “black” from Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine. This is a good palette to use in miniature plein air kits, like thumb boxes. You can paint almost anything in nature with Stobart’s six colors.

Limited PalettesSometimes, like a madman on a crash diet, I like to jettison even more colors from this already spartan palette. Here’s a painting that I did with just White, Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna, and Winsor Red. Doing without green or yellow was a challenge, but I enjoyed pushing the limits.

Limited PalettesHere’s another painting with just black, white, and burnt sienna. I starved myself from blue, yellow, and red. The reason was that I just wanted to think about form, not color.

There are lots of other formulations for limited palettes, both for oils and watercolors, but that’s enough from me. Your turn. Please chime in.

Water Reflections, Part 3

This is the last of a three-part series on water reflections. Reflections appear spontaneous and gestural, but they also follow definite laws.

Here’s a detail from a recent painting (page 31 of the new Dinotopia book), showing how an image is broken up by the wavelets. Edges with strong contrasts, like the brightly lit wall against the sky, or the dark boat hull, break up in a loose—but controlled—painterly way.

But subordinate edges, like the metal railings or the edge of the column, are blended and lost in the reflection. They might show up in a high-speed photo of the reflections (assuming the scene were real), but I don’t think the human eye would perceive them in real life.

In this plein-air painting in Mamaronek Harbor, I started with a warm underpainting and then laid down a light tone for the color of the reflected sky. Over this thinly painted but wet oil layer I added the calligraphic strokes of the reflections of the boat hulls.

This is a detail of the painting of Chandara from the new Dinotopia book. For a reflection like this, which follows the architecture very exactly, the perspective must be carefully constructed, even though the final reflections are painted quickly and gesturally.

The architectural forms in the reflection are drawn to the same vanishing points as the real forms in the scene. It’s not the same 2-D image inverted. That’s why the slope of the eves on the real projecting bay window (1) are different from the slope of the same forms in the reflection (2).

Perhaps there’s a broader lesson here about the artistic state of mind. I believe that the act of painting often consists of this strange combination of precision and freedom, accuracy and looseness. We need to think about physics and geometry, but at the same time, we have to surrender to an irrational impulse.

Serial PaintingDownfacing PlanesLorrain MirrorsSky PanelsMoving MountainsThe Golden HourOvercast Light, Part 2Disappearing SnowLimited PalettesWater Reflections, Part 3

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