Sunday, September 05, 2010

Painting Fall Colours En Plein Air

Fall is almost here. The kids are getting ready to go back to school and there is a nip in the air and a crisp feel to the colours and sky. Fall is a tempting season for painting outdoors. The natural display of magnificent colours that we are privileged to witness here in Canada plays no small part in this of course. We are all tempted to dip into pure colour and record the dazzling display of yellows and reds all around us. And here lies the problem.

Fall is - in my experience - one of the more difficult times to paint convincingly and in an unsentimental manner. In J.F. Carlson's classic book: Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting, John Carlson lays down one of the most enduring principles of value distribution in painting landscapes. Simply put, he divides the landscape into planes with varying degrees of light hitting them and affecting the values on a simple 4 value scale.
  1. The sky of course is the lightest value since it is the source of light
  2. The flat land is the second lightest since it receives the most uninterrupted light from the sky
  3. The sloping planes (Mountains/ hills) are the third lightest because they receive less direct light than the flat planes
  4. The upright planes (Trees/ cliffs) are the fourth on the value scale because they receive the least direct light since they are perpendicular to the light source in the sky. 

Of course there are many assumptions that mitigate the principle such as time of day and water/ snow etc...

Fall is one of those tricky mitigating times where Carlson's principle has to be carefully navigated. Below is an image of a field with three of the four planes showing (1 - 2 - and 4). As you can see from the graphically rendered image, the division of planes corresponds nicely to Carlson's principles.

Even where there are highlights in the trees, the values are lower than those in the flat land making the separation of planes neat and tidy and the composition simplified and easy to capture.

Now let's look at a similar image in the fall. Again I tried to find an image with three of the four planes showing. The distant hills value 3 will remain the same. As you can see here, the values in the upright plane 4 (trees) and the flat land plane 2 (land) are almost the same with the highlights in the trees actually lighter than the ground.  

In my personal experience if you stay true to the values that you see here in the fall picture, you will end up with a jarring pretty picture but not a true representation of nature. The oranges and reds will pull forward (warm colours tend to come forward) and the image at best will be flat and won't read right. In my opinion (and I am sure others will have their own ideas) you have to dull the colours down and push them back to Carlson's order while keeping the colours as true as possible and rich. Confused? Yes it can be very confusing and tricky. That is why Falls is a tough time to paint en plein air. It is beautiful and in your face but also hard to render and tricky to translate at the same time.