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ESSENTIAL CONCEPTS AND TECHNIQUES FOR PLEIN AIR AND STUDIO PRACTICE
Excerpt from Chapter 8: Light and Color Real Light vs. Painter's Light and the Limitations of Paint
"I was very pleased with myself when I discovered that sunlight cannot be reproduced, but that it must be represented by something else by color." Paul Cezanne
It is unlikely that you have ever looked at a scene in nature, crinkled your brow in bewilderment, and said, "Those colors just don't seem right!" Because the effects of actual landscape light are real, they never fail to be convincing. A painting, however, is a different kind of world. Artists may spend years learning color theory and how to mix colors, but they can never truly match the extreme range of colors and values found in nature. This is because natural light and painter’s pigments on canvas 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 sun-struck field of poppies or the radiant brilliance of the sun dancing on the water is simply not possible with paint. Which pigment would you choose to make the viewer squint as if looking into the sun? Painters have only the darkest dark, the whitest white, and pure colors. That range may seem quite robust on the palette, but is actually much narrower than the range of value and color brilliance found in nature.
These differences force artists to compensate by manipulating color and value in ways that are beyond what is seen in the actual subject. Artists borrow from the colors they see in the natural world and use them as a starting point, but getting the "right" color is never about copying nature or matching colors hue for hue, value for value. It is about finding a parallel relationship a color metaphor which substitutes for the real thing. This is the paradox color presents: painters strive to see the world as it is, to faithfully record the phenomenon of color nature presents to them, yet the limitations of pigment and canvas force them to alter what they see in order to create a convincing illusion. In this way, effective color in painting is partly based on observation and partly invented.
There is an oft-quoted saying attributed to many artists: "A painting is a lie that tells the truth." This is perhaps no truer than when dealing with color. The artist is always, first and foremost, a translator of color from one realm into another. Just as no two poets would use the same metaphor to describe the same emotion, no two painters would apply the same color strategy to describe the same light. The magic of capturing landscape light is that our paintings constrained by the limitations of pigments on canvas can evoke ideas and emotions equal to those experienced in reality.
Color strategies. Painters may follow nature's lead, borrowing considerably from what they see, but an effective color solution also relies upon a color strategy. Effective color choices are anything but random. How will the colors chosen and they way they are orchestrated support the painter's vision? What color groups dominate? Will the strength of the lights and darks be reinforced by temperature differences? Will complementary colors build contrasts that are vibrant or harmonizing … or both? Will an analogous harmony help unify the colors? Is the color composition primarily a series of neutrals augmented by a few touches of bright color, or is it primarily intense color augmented by a few neutrals? Myriad colors can be assigned to the trees and to the fields, and to everything else under the sun, but it is a consistent color strategy that binds them all together.
"It is the eye of ignorance that assigns a fixed and unchangeable color to overy object." Paul Gaughin
Rich Bowman, Blue Bounty, 2008, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches. The brilliance of real light cannot be imported into paintings directly, so artists apply various color strategies to create a convincing illusion of natural light. Here, Rich Bowman's color scheme incorporates the three primaries, red, yellow, and blue, with, blue being the dominant hue. He unifies the primaries by making sure that each one contains a little bit of the others. The bright yellow-orange part of the cloud has a tiny bit of blue in it, while the violet underside has some warmer yellows and reds. The explosive brilliance at the top of the cloud is achieved through contrast: First, the yellow-orange appears more intense because it is surrounded by less intense colors. Second, it is much lighter in value than what surrounds it. Third, there is a complementary relationship between the yellow-orange and the blue-violet hues in the darker underside. And fourth, the colors shift in temperature as they make a transition from light to dark.