Gurney Journey | category: Plein Air Painting | (page 21 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.

Water Reflections, Part 2

Yesterday we took a look at how light tones are reflected in still water. The dark tones in the scene—trees and such—are a different story.

The way they reflect in water depends on two factors. One is the amount of silt or sediment in the water, and the other is the amount of light shining into the water.

If the water is dirty, and if that dirty water is directly illuminated, the darks will get progressively lighter (and usually browner), as they did in this on-the-spot oil sketch of the River Suir in Limerick, Ireland, after a heavy rain. Reflections are at their purest only at dusk, when no direct light is touching the water. Muddy water in those conditions will reflect just as well as clear water.

The reflections differ from the source in another way. In the reflection, the image is distorted by the wavelets on the water. Even if the wind is very light, tiny waves break up the reflection, and dissolve horizontal lines. Vertical lines, though, are still preserved in the reflection.

For example, this detail is from a scene in Journey to Chandara. It shows a lake in the desert at dusk reflecting a seated statue. The horizontal lines of the base of the statue are not reflected, but the verticals appear quite clearly.

Let's do a reality check on that last point. In this photo of fishing boats in a harbor, you can see how reflections favor verticals over horizontals. In the reflection the lines of the gunwales quickly become indistinct, while even the finest masts and poles are still crisp and sharp.

In the words of John Ruskin, who wrote eloquently on this subject in the early 19th Century, "All motion in water elongates reflections, and throws them into confused vertical lines."

On Monday, in the final installment on water reflections, we’ll take a look at how reflections break up images in water that's a little more disturbed.

Water Reflections, Part 1

When a scene is reflected in water, it appears almost like an inverted mirror image.

Almost. But the reflection is different in a few important ways. First off, the light tones that you see in the scene above the water will appear a little darker in the reflection. These light tones might be clouds in the sky, a white house, or light-colored leaves on riverside plants.

The reason these light tones appear a little darker in the reflection is that some of the light penetrates into the water, rather than bouncing off the surface. This light is the very same light that you would see if you were snorkeling under the surface. If water were a perfect mirror, fish would live in pitch darkness! Because each parcel of light is reduced by the amount of light that is diverted into the water, the amount of light reflected is also reduced.

Note how the colors of both the blue sky and the orange bush darken when they're reflected in this wintry stream.

Water approaches the reflectivity of a perfect mirror only when you’re looking straight across it at a very shallow angle. As the steepness of the angle of reflection increases, the percentage of light entering the water also increases. If you are looking steeply down onto the surface of the water, not much light from the sky will be reflected. Think how dark the water in a lake or ocean appears when you look straight down into it from the side of a boat.

This light-eating phenomenon (called refraction, as opposed to reflection) came into play in this painting of a white resort perched above a lake. I was looking downward on the water, and was surprised how poorly the water reflected the white rocks along the lake's edge and the light stones on the building. I painted it the way I saw it, but it still looks strange to me.

As a reality check, here's a photo of the same place, shot with a steep downward angle. It shows the same effect, with most of the light tones disappearing into the water, rather than reflecting off its surface.

Winter Painting Tips

Now that winter is here, only the crazy people go out to paint.

I learned how to survive winter painting from one of my crazy friends, Jim Cramer. He’s far more intrepid than I am. He does all his paintings outdoors, year round. You’ll find him out there in the teeth of a gale or beside a frozen river down to about ten degrees above zero.

I wimp out below about 25 or 30 degrees Fahrenheit or about minus 4 degrees Celsius. But I love painting snow because the colors of light and shadow are much more obvious, especially around the “golden hour.”

Winter Painting TipsHere are a few tips, mainly on what not to do:

--Fingerless gloves keep your hands warm without losing your grip on the brush. Put your non-painting hand in a warmer glove.

--Don’t use a metal mahlstick like I’m doing here. A wooden one is much better.

Winter Painting Tips--The glare of full sun on snow makes it hard to judge color. Try painting late in the day when the shadows lengthen.

--If you’re painting in watercolor in subfreezing temperatures, don’t replace the water with white wine, because that freezes, too. Use vodka instead.

Winter Painting Tips--That white umbrella on the C-Stand is meant to cut direct sunlight from behind. If the wind picks up, the C-Stand should be weighted with a sandbag.

--Your feet and your fingers are the first to freeze. Wear insulated boots, and try standing on a carpet sample instead of directly on the snow.

Shadows vs. Reflections

“You can’t cast a shadow over deep water,” says an old law of landscape painting. It’s usually true, but only when the water is clear. If the water is murky you can see cast shadows, but their edges are more diffuse than shadows cast over on land because the light transmits throughout the medium of the diffused particles.

Shadows vs. ReflectionsWhat happens when a cast shadow on water crosses a reflection? That’s what I was trying to capture in this 8x10 oil sketch, painted on location of the bridge leading into Toledo, Spain. It was a mind-bending challenge of color mixing.

Shadows vs. ReflectionsThe simple answer is that the reflection “wins,” as you can see in the closeup. The light colors reflected from the stone piers (1) don’t get any darker where they cross into the shadow. But to the left, I observed the weaker reflections of the sky and the trees (2) became influenced by the deeper colors of the water in the cast shadow.

Shadows vs. ReflectionsI used the light, color, and basic composition of this plein-air study as my source for the painting “Ruined Bridge,” in Journey to Chandara. The main change was to add a half-collapsed tower covered with vines and a makeshift house.
By the way, let me express my regards and thanks to all at Rhythm & Hues, Art Center, LA Public Library, DreamWorks, Imageworks, and Sony Pictures Animation. I'm very grateful for your welcome. Meeting all of you fellow artists—and seeing your incredible work has been so inspiring to me that I have been walking on air. And to my readers, please be patient for the blog posts about those visits, because with all the travel it may take quite a while to catch up.

Rain and Neon

One of the virtues of oil paint is that you can paint in a drizzle or a downpour. Don’t even think of trying it in watercolor. In 100 percent humidity, watercolor washes won't dry.

Here's the setup I was using for a painting of a storefront scene. The umbrella was a cheap beach umbrella that came with a plastic clamp. It attached to the top of the pochade box. It kept the worst of the water off the painting, but instead an icy river flowed down my neck.

Rain and NeonIt poured for six hours with no let-up. You can see the painting here in its lay-in stage, drawn in loosely with a bristle brush using burnt sienna thinned with turpentine.

Rain and NeonIt was fun painting the puddles, but I had a devil of a time with the neon drug store sign, as you can see in the final painting. The neon is an intensely saturated color. But it’s also high in value. It’s impossible to capture in both the intense chroma and the high value in the same single paint mixture.

Rain and NeonIf you go for the bright red chroma, the value or tone of the paint goes lower, and if you try to capture the lightness, you can’t also suggest the color. Analyzing the photo now after the fact, I suppose the trick would have been to show the bright halo of intensely saturated color directly adjacent to the near-white neon tubes.

Capturing a Cumulus

Here’s a 16x20 inch oil study of thunderheads on a warm July day.

I was amazed as I worked over a two hour period how fast the scene changed from minute to minute. Watch this time lapse video of a similar cloud formation boiling away. As soon as you have the shapes established, you have to paint the details from memory. But you can keep studying the scene for the overall color relationships.

Capturing a CumulusThe brightest whites and the sharpest details are reserved for the emerging billows at the top. The purer white colors of the closer clouds transition more toward warm pink or dull orange as the clouds go back in space. Light that has traveled farther has lost more of its cool wavelengths through scattering.

Whenever you paint these attention-grabbing "cumulus castellanus" thunderheads, look also for the shreds of old clouds sheared off by wind currents and dissolving back into the air. These often-overlooked “fractus” or “scud” clouds are the other side of the cloud’s life cycle of growth and decay. They lack the compact density of the billowing clouds, and are never as white.

Painting Pumpkins

To celebrate autumn, here’s a step-by-step painting demo from a local farmstand.

Painting Pumpkins
The pochade box is set up on a camera tripod, with the white umbrella mounted on a C-stand nearby. It’s an overcast day, so the umbrella isn’t really necessary as a light diffuser, but it protects against occasional sprinkles of rain.

Painting Pumpkins
To speed up the painting, I spent about 15 minutes premixing little piles of the main colors of the scene: dull yellow, orange, red, and cool gray. For each hue, there are about four or five separate steps of tone or value. The palette cups hold Grumtine turpentine and Liquin. The brushes and palette knife hang off the board on the left.

Painting Pumpkins
Here are the basic shapes sketched in with a bristle brush using burnt sienna and raw umber thinned down with turpentine.

Painting Pumpkins
Now the tones are lightly washed in transparently, just to cover the whiteness of the canvas.

Painting Pumpkins
Here it is about an hour and a half along, with the pumpkins in the foreground and the basket of ornamental gourds at left finished. Time is racing by, and customers keep coming up and trying to buy the gourds.

Painting Pumpkins
Here’s the finished painting after about four hours of work time. This was a "paint out" day, so it had to be auctioned off as a wet painting later that afternoon.

This amount of painting would have taken about four days in the studio. There’s something about the urgency of being on the spot that speeds up painting decisions. But the real secret to painting fast either in the studio or on the spot is premixing pools of color, because otherwise most of the time is wasted with color mixing.

Transmitted Light

When sunlight travels through a semi-transparent material, the light becomes richly colored. Light that just bounces off the surface is fairly dull by comparison.

This “stained-glass-window effect" is called transmitted light, and you often see it when the sun shines through the green or yellow leaves of a tree. You might also see transmitted light when the sun backlights colored balloons, a sailboat’s spinnaker, or a translucent nylon awning.

Transmitted LightThis on-the-spot oil painting of a skunk cabbage plant is a study of transmitted light. The bright yellow-green area is much more intense than the other greens.

Here’s the picture again, with numbers superimposed in each area of the foliage to analyze what’s going on with the light and color:

Transmitted Light
1. Transmitted light, with intense chroma or saturation in the yellow-green range.
2. The leaf in shadow, facing downward. This is the darkest green, and would be even darker if it wasn't picking up reflected light from the adjacent leaf seen edge-on.
3. The leaf in shadow, facing upward. These ‘up-facing planes’ are blue-green, because they are picking up the blue light from the sky.
4. Sunlight reflecting off the top surface of the leaf. This is the highest tone or value, and the most textural, especially where it transitions to shadow. But the chroma is not very intense, because most of the light bounces off the waxy cuticle of the leaf.

When you are painting a faraway tree backlit by sunlight, it’s good to keep in mind these four conditions: transmitted, downfacing shadow, upfacing shadow and sunlit. These colors, visible in the skunk cabbage up close on a micro scale, are present here, too, mixed together like tiny pixels even if you can’t really see the component leaves.

Transmitted Light
The distant foliage is a composite of all four color elements, blended with the atmospheric effects. As you can see in this faraway view of autumn maples, there are more leaves shining with transmitted light at the lower left margin of the tree. The leaves in the central area are darker and duller because they’re lit by the cool skylight.

The Disaster at Kaaterskill Creek

Blog reader J. Fullmer asked about the disaster I referred to a while ago on the posts called From Endor to Chelsea and White Umbrellas. To recap, my artist friend Chris Evans and my wife and I were up in the Catskills doing some plein air painting.

We staggered down the rocky banks of Kaaterskill Clove in search of a waterfall called Fawn’s Leap, a favorite motif of the early Hudson River School Painters. I found a good vista from the middle of the stream, where a flat rock the size of a kitchen table provided just enough space to set up my tripod, pochade box, and white umbrella.

The Disaster at Kaaterskill Creek
As I worked, the water surged around me from several days of heavy rain. The painting was finished in time for lunch. I left everything set up and hopped across the boulders to join Chris and Jeanette for a sandwich and coffee.

Suddenly there came a blast of cold wind down the clove. I heard a shout: “It’s going over!”

I looked up to see the umbrella fill like a sail and carry the whole rig—tripod, brushes, palette, and painting— into the rapids. Thinking quickly, Jeanette grabbed the umbrella, which had broken free and was floating upside down, circling like a leaf in one of the side eddies. I stood astraddle two boulders to rescue a couple of the brushes as they drifted by. The rest of them had entered the main current and disappeared into the next set of rapids.

The Disaster at Kaaterskill Creek
Chris fished out the tripod and intercepted the painting as it floated downstream. It was cruising half-submerged with the wet oil palette stuck against the backside of it. Amazingly, the painting suffered only minor damage from the water, and only a few thumb prints and scrapes where it had bounced against some boulders.

The only moral to this story is to take down the umbrella when you break for lunch!

Postcard from Georgetown

Before we left Washington D.C. today, I did one last watercolor in the mini Moleskine.
First, here’s the street corner of 31st and M as it appeared to the camera.

Postcard from Georgetown
Inspired by all of your kind comments on the October 15 post (grazie, Maurizio, mi fai tanti complimenti), I thought I’d try the idea of accentuating the lighting contrast to simulate the look of old photos.

So I laid in the broad shadow masses a bit darker than they appeared, and kept the light sides of all the forms a bit lighter than they actually appeared. The only pure white is the central building. White shapes in the center of a composition are a sure-fire eyeball magnet.

Postcard from Georgetown
This time I remembered the fountain pen with the brown ink. It’s an old Waterman with a pump mechanism inside that slurps fountain pen ink right out of a bottle. The ink is water-soluble, so the line work has to be done after all the washes.

Postcard from Georgetown
Jeanette uses a brown Micron with permanent ink so she doesn’t have to worry about dissolving her lines if she needs to add additional washes. But we both like to add line work and details last to avoid a “coloring book” look. Lines defining the light side of the form aren’t really necessary, and leaving them off gives a nice touch.
Water Reflections, Part 2Water Reflections, Part 1Winter Painting TipsShadows vs. ReflectionsRain and NeonCapturing a CumulusPainting PumpkinsTransmitted LightThe Disaster at Kaaterskill CreekPostcard from Georgetown

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