Are you an artist who’s found yourself chasing after the light instead of catching it?
I used to feel like I was always chasing the light instead of catching it in my landscape paintings. That strong sense of light seemed to be just out of reach.
So I really started studying how color creates a strong sense of light.
And what I could do to catch the light instead of always chasing it.
In this episode, I’m going to explain the difference between chasing the light when you’re painting from life, and catching the light.
When you’re painting outside, working from life can be a real big challenge for a lot of folks. I hosted a workshop on Edisto Island where we spent all whole week catching the light, rather than chasing it.
What do I mean by those two things and how are they different?
They’re actually a world apart. So if you’re chasing the light, it means that you’re painting from life and you’re going without a roadmap. You’re always trying to adjust the color and adjust the values as you paint. And because the light keeps changing when you’re outside, the values keep changing on your painting so that you never actually catch up with what you’re seeing.
That’s incredibly frustrating, and not the best way to work.
What’s much more efficient? What works so much better? To catch the light instead of chasing it.
And by that, I mean identify the value patterns you see in the landscape or subject you’re working on from life before you get started with the painting.
Because if you capture that value pattern before you get started and do it really quickly, you’re going to be golden. You’ve already caught the light. You can follow the value roadmap.
And from then on, while the values you see might change, WILL change, you’ll have a roadmap to follow of what you initially saw. Remember, the colors will stay the same, but the value patterns will shift. So you want to capture that value roadmap right away.
Then mix your colors before you start painting, and dive in to painting.
That’s what I mean by the difference between catching the light and chasing the light. One is filled with empowerment, with a feeling like, you know, where you’re going with the painting and the other is totally filled with frustration.
Ultimately, if you spend enough time with your subject, especially if you’re painting from life with a subject that you’re really familiar with a landscape that you’re in lots of times, then you’re going to have observed the value patterns and a light and the color over time enough to be able to go beyond even catching the light.
And when you’re at that phase of developing, working from life, I call that painting towards the light. If you know what the light is going to look like in an hour and an hour and a half, you can note down the value patterns you see right now, and you can paint towards what you know they’re going to be in an hour and a half or two hours.
That is the ultimate in control when you’re painting from life. So, how do you make painting from life a little bit easier? How do you catch the light?
These are the 7 basic steps I take each time I’m painting plein air. I hope they can help you catch the light too!
1. Tone your canvas or panel. Toning gets rid of that intimidating white rectangle, and gives you an overall middle value to start with. It also helps to unify the composition. I use yellow ochre since it gives a warm glow like the color of light here in the Lowcountry. Read more on Why You Should Use a Toned Ground here!
2. Make a thumbnail. You’ll be able to see the value patterns so much more easily when you make a thumbnail sketch. Simplify to 3-5 values and 5-7 shapes. Don’t spend more than a minute or two on it. The more you do them the faster you’ll get.
3. Look for bold patterns of light and dark. Study the pattern of light and dark shapes called Notan and their sense of unity, the Gestault. When compositions work in limited values, in black and white, they’ll be strong in color. Read more on Notans here!
4. Look for warm and cool color contrasts. They actually speak just as loudly as contrast in value.
5. Pick one key, dominant color. When you start with this key color and choose all other colors in relation to it, you’ll achieve strong unity and harmony.
6. Mix your basic palette before you get started. See #5 above. Mixing your palette ahead means you’ll know that the color scheme is going to work together before touching your canvas with paint. You’ll also be able to react more quickly to the changing patterns of light and shadow in the landscape. Struggling with mixing vivid, rich colors? More on that here!
7. Work from dark to light, background to foreground. When you’re painting alla prima (wet-in-wet), putting dark on top of light paint tends to mix and muddy. So it works much better to work from dark to light. Also when painting plein air the shadows will change quickly so it’s important to establish them early. If the Alla Prima technique is new to you I recommend checking out Draw Paint Academy’s Alla Prima (Wet on Wet) Painting Tips here!
I hope that’s been helpful and look forward to hearing how using these help you with painting plein air.
You're invited to a special free workshop I’m hosting where I'll share how you can leverage composition, value, and color to make compelling paintings. If you missed this earlier now's the time to save your seat. You can learn more here and find a time that fits your schedule.