Friday, February 6

Painting Sunlight & Chiaroscuro

Today’s Image

Today Image is an icon for the sun, which ties into the topic of today's art blog--painting sunlight.

‘How do you paint sunlight?’ you ask. It’s not easy. Little kids simplify this in their art by drawing/painting/coloring a large yellow orb in the upper right- or left-hand corner. Not only little kids do this. Grown-up artists do this, too, sometimes. I hope it’s due to the aesthetic of the piece, similar to the moon in Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and not because it’s how you think sunlight should be painted!

Since I started painting again, I have learned that you don’t really “paint” sunshine, of course. If you recall from your middle school science class, the sun’s rays are invisible. What you’re painting, or capturing, on paper or canvas is actually the result of light falling upon your subject.
That sounds easy enough, but it’s not easy by any means. It takes skill, practice, and time-years in most cases- to master the art of painting sunlight. But the reward is worth the effort, because the ability to paint light is what makes your artwork come alive.

You may have already figured this out, but there can be no light without dark. What? The impression of light is actually relative by comparison to something less light (or dark). Think about it. If all you painted were light, your artwork would be all white and nothing else. That’s because white is the additive result of all light. All white artwork is fine but probably not your intention.

What I’m getting at is that contrast of light to dark (or vice versa) is the key. This is the value of the color (or hue), which means how light or dark the color is. Confused yet? Don’t be. However, learning to paint the variation or gradation of light upon your subject(s) along with its shadow(s) will improve your artwork.
As I said, it’s the contrast of the light to dark that’s most important. Painting light and dark, or sunlight and shadow, is also how shapes and space are perceived. Without that contrast, everything would appear to be on a flat plane or two-dimensional (length x width). It’s the ‘play’ of light on the lighted and unlighted portions of our subjects that make them appear three-dimensional (length x width x height).

A big word for arranging light and shadow in art is chiaroscuro. Whether you know it or not, that’s what you’re doing when you figure out how much light illuminates your subject and conversely the shadows. Although painting sunlight sounds as if it’s applicable only to plein air painting, that’s not the case. The same principles apply to indoor or artificial light as well.

There is a whole field of scientific study on color, with art being just one of the interested parties. I’m guessing you just want to be a better painter and not a scientist, right? Painting light-or sunlight-and alter ego darkness is a whole area of artistic education. Lucky for most of us, a passing knowledge of the basics of color theory is all that’s really required, not becoming an expert.

One of the masters at this is Edward Hopper. His whole career was based on, and I quote, "I just want to paint the sun's light on the side wall of a house." He is known for his stark and thought-provoking paintings in which the contrast of sunlight or indoor light versus shadow played a prominent role in most of them.

Hopper’s breakout piece of art that was the beginning of his long career was a watercolor entitled Mansard Roof. It’s a painting of a house in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and in it he perfectly captured not only the sunlight but the whole atmosphere of the place. Currently on tour, it resides in The Brooklyn Museum in New York, USA.

Learn to paint sunlight and your art will come alive!


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