I can't really tell what the color of the light source is here, but I can definitely see a bluish cast to the shadows within the folds. So, I'm going to assume the light is the complement, or yellow. Of course, blue skylight bouncing down into the shadow also colors the shadow.
"First, determine the color of your light source." This piece of advice often is shared with painters when they are striving to paint correctly the color relationships of light and shadow areas of an object. Knowing the color of the light source helps you decide how warm or cool to paint illuminated areas, and consequently, how to paint the shadowed areas.
So how do you determine the light source color? I must credit Doug Dawson, my friend, fellow painter and art instructor, with this idea. Take a sheet of white paper, crumple it up, and toss it into the light. But rather than look at the lit areas of the paper for clues, look into the pockets of shadow. It's easier to determine the color of shadow than of light. Once you've determined the shadow color, you can assume that the light will be its complement.
For example, if you see the shadow as a pure blue-violet—often the case on a sunny day with clear air—you can assume the light will be a yellow-orange. On a cloudy day, the shadow will be lighter and warmer because of the diffused light, which makes the shadow color somewhat harder to gauge. I sometimes read this as a grey with a slight red bias, which would indicate that the light has a greenish quality.
Finally—and this is my own advice to students—if you can't determine the color of the light, just make a decision. If you waffle, your light/shadow relationships are likely to be confused, and this will also confuse your viewer.
"Time and tide wait for no man," the saying goes. Here on the Bay of Fundy, the tides are tremendous. They're the highest tides in the world. Of course, that depends on where you are, exactly, in the Bay. Here on Campobello Island, the tidal change averages around 28 feet. So, if you're painting outdoors and typically paint for about two hours (as I do), there's a 10-foot change during that time. This is significant, and the contour of the shore shifts drastically.
This week I went out to one of my favorite spots on the island to paint a particular rock outcrop that, at high tide, is isolated from the "mainland." I wanted to paint from a low angle and looking up at the rock, which meant I had to do it from the beach. I also wanted to make sure I had some water in the scene, which meant I had to do it as high tide approached. And if I timed it wrong, I might get my feet wet.
But I'm very familiar with the way the tide behaves around this outcrop, so I set up near the wrack-line, which indicates the point the last high tide reached. I wasn't in any danger. Plus, I only spent a little over an hour on this 16x20. Just so you can see the tidal change during that 80-minute period, here is a before and after shot of the scene:
By the way, it's gotten to be fashionable for plein air painters to shoot a photo of a painting in the field so it seems to merge with the background painted. Here's my attempt at that.
Seven Miles Out 12x9 Oil - Available Here The rocks in ths painting exhibit a variety of greys in the sunlight. After reading my post on greys, can you see how I painted the sunny passages?
Hello, my name is Michael, and I'm a colorblind painter.
Well, not completely colorblind. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, I suffer from a degree of protanopia, or red-green colorblindness. About 8% of all men and 0.5% of all women suffer from it. But for me, I don't consider it a handicap. If my eyes tell me I'm seeing grey, I don't paint it just plain old grey—I can't trust my ability to mix a true neutral—but I push it into some color family. As a result, my greys are more interesting, perhaps, than those mixed by a painter with normal vision.
A reader asked how I decide which way to push a grey if my less-than-perfect eyes can't discern its color family. To help me avoid odd juxtapositions of color, I need my greys, however subtle, to display a color bias that I can actually see. Here's how I handle that.
If the grey is in sunshine, I first determine the color of the light source; anything touched by it will show a bit of that color. (I'll tell you how I determine the color of a light source in a future post.) Let's assume the light is yellow. Next, I mix a more-or-less neutral grey, often just ultramarine blue and burnt sienna plus white, which makes a warmish grey. I then add yellow to push it toward the color of the light. I may tweak this as needed with other colors, but I aim to maintain the influence of the light source.
Whatever the resulting color, this sunlit grey has to look, well, grey. One trick to making a grey look even greyer is to surround it it with more intense colors. By the way, white is a useful modifier for light greys. It will not only cool down a grey that has become too warm but will also help grey it down even more.
On the other hand, if the grey is in shadow, I assume it will be influenced by the complement of the light source—I am thinking here of simultaneous contrast—or of the sky color spilling down into it. Again, let's assume the light is yellow, so the complement is violet. I'll take that same warmish grey mixture (ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, but with little or no white) and add violet. If I can determine that the shadow color is a little more influenced by the sky color, which is usually a blue, I will add some of that, as well.
To get even more interesting greys, I use broken color as I apply paint to canvas. One of my favorite recipes for painting fog is to scumble pale tints of cool red (cadmium red plus white) and cool green (phthalo green plus white) over each other. For painting a broad area, I lay down large patches of these two colors, alternating them as I go. Then I go back and very lightly drag a loaded brush of the complement over each color. For grey rocks along the coast, I may paint the rocks pink to start, then add greens and blue-greens to grey down the pink.
When I'm working in pastel, I take the same basic approach. I do have a small set of greys (warm and cool) to scumble over passages I want to grey down, but I rarely start with a grey if I am painting a grey shape. Instead, I usually first layer complements or near-complements to get a grey, and then use my grey pastels, if necessary, to grey down the passage more.
A proper artist needs a proper studio--even a plein air painter. There's always stuff to store and paintings that are better adjusted indoors than out. But as much as I've enjoyed my small studios over the years, I've always had a hankering for a barn studio. It's not so much that I have a need for more space for stuff as it is a need for just more, well, space. Room to swing a brush in. Room for the light to play in. Room to breathe in.
If you've seen photos of the studios of historic painters, the studios are usually quite large. Mostly, that's because the painters made big paintings, and they needed a ceiling high enough for their tall easels and room for storing all those big paintings. And, it seems, they needed space for a day bed for a nap after wielding a big brush all day long.
Here's Jackson Pollack in his studio. I don't think I'll be painting on the floor, nor will I be painting canvases quite that big. But I do have my barn studio now, and the electricians have just finished wiring up new lights. I'm very excited to have it and eager to show it to visitors. It's also a gallery, filled with my maritime paintings. I'm calling it "Michael Chesley Johnson Studio at Friar's Bay," and it's open by appointment seasonally. If you're in the area, email me or give me a call.
Shadows in the Cove 9x12 Oil Available Here I didn't paint the otter into this painting, but he is there, nonetheless.
I'm painting at a secret pond I discovered on one of my hikes. It lies behind a barrier beach, piled high by the tides with cobble stones. A small break in the barrier lets the tide come and go into this cove. The cove's waters are brackish, dyed a deep red by the tannins leached from the peaty soils at its edge. Spruces and firs, tamaracks and the occasional birch grow so thickly around the pond that they create a land of midnight outside this spot so brightly illuminated in the June sun.
As I get deeper into painting, the nouns and adjectives and verbs cease. I am looking without talking to myself, as I sometimes do. Instead, the brush does the speaking, translating what my eyes see into strokes of paint.
If this pond could speak, what it would say is being said in paint.
This moment, where I am one with the pond, becomes inscrutable, ineffable. Even though words are one tool that I use to explore the world—another being paint—the moment is difficult to examine, even upon reflection, as well as difficult to understand.
"Communion" is the only word that seems to fit.
Communion is most often a religious term, and it means the joining of your spirit with something else, usually a higher power. For Christians, it's about the union of your soul with Christ or God, or about the union of your soul with other Christians in Heaven and on Earth. For me as a landscape painter, it is also the moment I spend connecting with the natural world when I paint. Some might think of this as a secular use of the term, but as I paint the pond I sense a spirit in Nature. Whatever, there is something sacred about the moment.
Breaking the moment, an otter splashes to get my attention. As I paint, he continues to paddle back and forth, his small head lifted ever so slightly above the surface, watching, pulling a long wake across the glassy water.
One day I went out to paint on a trail that I hadn't painted on before. Hard to believe, considering I've spent more than 15 years painting on the island!
Although this has been one of the wetter springs and starts to the summer I can recall on Campobello Island, I've had enough sunny days to get out and paint. I thought I'd share with you some of this new recent work. All of them are available for sale at http://www.mchesleyjohnson.com/new-work/
One thing I've done with these new paintings is to use a large (for me) brush. This is an #8 synthetic flat from Silver Brush. I've not used synthetic brushes before because I've always liked the feeling of natural bristle. But my natural bristles wear down so fast during the block-in! So, I decided to buy a couple of synthetic ones for blocking in. I like the feeling of them so much I did the whole painting with them.
You'll note that the scenes are a little different from what I usually paint here. I've grown a little tired of the compositions that have an arc of beach terminating in some point of land that juts out into the ocean. So, I've been consciously looking for different motifs.
Outreach 9x12 Oil I've painted this point plenty of times, but never this loosely. Available here.
Seven Miles Out 12x9 Oil Capturing a sense of sunlight on these grey rocks, which you can see toward the bottom of this cliff, is always challenging. By the way, "seven miles out" refers to the distance from this point to Grand Manan, which you can see on the horizon. Available here
Shadows in the Cove 9x12 Oil A secret place that I'm not sharing even with students! The whole time I painted this, an otter swam back and forth, keeping an eye on me. Available Here
Shady Barn 6x8 Oil My new summer studio is in this barn. Available here
Shady Pond 9x12 Oil Another favorite spot, at the head of Glensevern Lake. Available here
Stand Alone 12x9 Oil Maybe this one should be titled, "What? Still there?" since every year I come back to Campobello expecting this tree to have fallen to winter storms. It's lost many limbs but still stands. Available here
That's it for now. I'll have more as the summer continues.
You can make any human activity into meditation simply by being completely with it and doing it just to do it.
Back when I was in high school, I started reading about meditation. I tuned in especially to Alan Watts; his books, such as The Way of Zen, spoke to me in such a personal way that he felt like a close friend. (His books seemed so full of life that I was very surprised when I learned that he'd died in 1973—long before I discovered him.) Inspired by Watts, I practiced meditation and continued to do so through college and into graduate school.
Why? Well, it was part of the milieu of the times. Many of us my age back then sought some meaning in the suburban lives our parents had handed to us. The counterculture was alive and well, and some of us were finding what we needed in the popularized versions of Eastern religions.
I haven't meditated—not in a formal way—in years, but every time I paint en plein air, the act of painting feels so much like meditation. Especially if the painting is going well and I am "in the zone," any anxiety vanishes like a morning mist, a quiet joy bubbles to the surface, and the self becomes as transparent and not-there as the water of a clear, freshwater pond.
In a previous post, I wrote that painting is the way I "digest the world." To clarify, painting helps me observe and also sometimes understand the physical world. There's more than a little bit of the scientist in me, and through painting I may learn something about botany, ornithology, geology, meteorology and a few other -ologies. For example, while painting a spruce along the edge of a bog, I may note that one branch goes off in an odd direction, and so I deduce it's because it had to grow around another branch that is now missing. This and other observations provide clues to the tree's life story.
But interestingly, the things I observe and learn about may not be the things I paint.
Painting is a holistic enterprise, so while making my study of a spruce, I am also paying peripheral attention to everything else. I follow the buzz of an insect, and I find it drowning in the "pitcher" of a pitcher plant. A chickadee sings in my spruce—will it miss this one insect? No, because I spy wrigglers—mosquito larvae—in the red, tannin-rich water of the bog, and soon there will be plenty of mosquitoes for it to harvest. And in fact, a rainbow-colored sundog, pinned to a ceiling of high, wispy clouds, foretells of rain and even more mosquitoes.
Painting also helps me understand the metaphysical world. More about that later.
This sketch by John Singer Sargent shows things as they are, although I suspect he removed a twig or two. Forest, Ramsau, Germany. 1871. National Gallery of Art
Lots of us start out painting by just trying to make something look like what it is. You try to sharpen and then hone to a fine edge the skills necessary for representational painting. After awhile, you reach the point of successfully capturing the exact portrait of a particular tree, right down to every twig, and that's certainly an accomplishment. After awhile longer, though, you realize that not every twig is important, and you start to leave out some. Suddenly, even though the portrait is no longer exact, somehow it "feels" more like the tree than the exact copy. This is a great accomplishment.
Cezanne here arrives at a sense of "treeness" without being totally factual. Montagne Sainte-Victoire et viaduc du côté de Valcros. 1897-1900. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
Piet Mondrian takes the idea of "treeness" a bit farther. Grey Tree. 1911. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.
More time passes, more practice is put in, and you start to push color. Maybe you increase the temperature contrast between warm, sunny clumps of foliage and the cool, shadowy undersides. Maybe you even make the color a bit richer to further enhance the sunny effect. Once more, the sketch begins to feel even more like the tree. Although you have departed from the facts that make up the tree, you have arrived at the truth of the tree.
This is a greater accomplishment yet. You finally have learned to outpaint nature when it comes to trees.
But after many years of feeling highly satisfied by a long run of painting trees successfully, you become aware of an uncomfortable hollowness. It dawns on you that you are making sketches and not pictures. Shouldn't there be something more than just painting the truth?
Frederic Edwin Church, in this painting, uplifts and inspires us. The trees are integrated into the whole. El Rio de Luz. 1877. National Gallery of Art.
In this one, Winslow Homer makes the tree an important part of a story. Sharpshooter. 1863. Portland Museum of Art.
Some might say painting the truth is sufficient. Others might say that a painting should also inspire and uplift. More than a few might say that a painting should also tell a story.
But which is path is the right one? I don't have an answer for that, and most likely, the answer varies from artist to artist. I have to find my own way and you, yours.
Once upon a time, I wanted to write novels. And I did write a few, one of which I finally ended up self-publishing. But I found that I had a problem with the novel-writing process—feedback on chapters given to friends for review took a long time coming. This slowed down the writing, which, for a novel, was already considerably slow. I was raised on a diet rich in impatience.
Craving faster feedback, I turned to short stories. They were quicker to write, but feedback didn't come any faster. And the time it took for a story submitted to a magazine either to be rejected or accepted was, well, daunting. I tried poetry, too, short little things.*
It occured to me that the problem with writing is that it is linear. Letters are strung into words; words, into sentences; sentences into chapters; chapters into the proverbial weighty tome. (Or "tomb," if all that work doesn't pay off.) My reader had to follow this miles-long, tangled string I had reeled out in the labyrinth of my writing. Was there any quicker way to get feedback?
Yes, I discovered, in painting. A painting isn't made up of one string but of many layers of strings, all interwoven, all visible. Because you can see all of it in a single moment of study, it provokes an immediate response—sometimes visceral and dramatic, othertimes cautious and tentative, but there's always something. This initial response is often followed by a more considered one; a painting can contain a world of complexity in that two-dimensional surface, a complexity as involved as any novel's plot, a complexity that requires time and effort to understand. But it is that initial response, that quick kick, that the painter wants and gets.
And that's one reason why I'm a painter.
But these days, as I age, the quick reponse is losing its savor. I'm more sure of myself and don't crave—or even really need—the instant response. What's more, I'm now chewing my food more slowly and with more thought. Painting has become a more-considered effort, not so much a sandwich slapped together but a fine meal with many courses. And I in the drawer I do have a couple of half-written novels. I've a mind to start thinking about them again.
But in the meantime, I will keep on painting—right now, it's the way I digest the world.
__________ *Curious about what I've published? Besides poetry here and there, I've had science fiction and fantasy published in small magazines. My claim to fame is a story, "The Stone Wives," that Marion Zimmer Bradley took for the last volume of an anthology series that she personally edited before her death, Sword & Sorceress XVIII. I've also self-published my novel, Dream Sector, under my pen name, Mac Braxton, which you can get from Amazon. Here's the cover: