Monday, July 9, 2007

More on Color Temperature

As I have remarked elsewhere, lighthouses tend to be troublesome subject matter for the beginner -- and ofttimes for the professional. If the lighthouse is particularly scenic, it's hard not to end up with a postcard.

The other day, I drove over to Lubec, Maine, to paint the lupines blooming in front of the old fish houses in the McCurdy Smokehouse Complex. Unfortunately, the road crews were out doing some sort of noisy work that involved a couple of backhoes, and they were right in front of my lupines! I decided to drive a bit farther out, to the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, where it would be quieter.

I've never painted this particular lighthouse before. I wanted to choose a view that featured the lighthouse prominently, but I also wanted the painting to be more about light than about the lighthouse -- especially since it was such a blindingly bright morning. The best way to accomplish my goal was to just focus on the relationships of color temperature in shadow and in light.

I have to admit, this one gave me a headache. I was very happy with the painting when I finished, but as it lingered on my "viewing mantle," I began to second-guess my temperature scheme. I painted the lights very cool and the shadows warm. But the warm, shaded side of the building just didn't seem to fit. Maybe, I thought, I had misjudged the relationship, and the shaded side should be cooler. So, I made it cooler with some violet. After looking at that for a day, I wasn't happy with that, either. I decided to try blues. Another day passed, and I still wasn't happy.

I finally used my colorwheel. I looked at my bright green grass, which is a blue-green, and found the exact complement -- a warm, brownish hue -- which I meticulously matched in value to the shaded side. To help in this value-matching process, I used a sheet of clear plastic over the actual painting and daubed samples of my mixture directly on it. This way, I was able to try different values, as well as color mixtures, without ruining the painting. It worked perfectly!

One unexpected consequence of this re-painting is the buildup of scumbled shadow colors, both warm and cool. It adds a very pleasing density and complexity to the shaded side.

"West Quoddy Light, Morning" 8x10, oil

(Click on image for a larger version.)

Post-Script: 14 July 2007

I posted this same painting in the Plein Air forum on WetCanvas, and I garnered lots of favorable comments. I also got some suggestions on it. One had to do with the fact that the horizon coincides exactly with the roof line of the building. I felt I should address this here, as other artists, well-versed in the rules of composition, may also note this.

One of the rules, of course, is that one should avoid tangential lines of this sort. Rule-follower that I am, I immediately noticed this rule-breaker, and so I moved around quite a bit to change my viewpoint to shift the horizon line. However, that tangential line made such a strong impression on me that I felt I had to capture it. So, I went back to my first position and decided to break the rule.

Why? The tangent gives the lighthouse, the three chimneys and the tip of the flagpole much more prominence than it would otherwise. My original vision, which still holds, is that the painting is about color temperature, as I noted earlier. But the lighthouse now makes a strong statement, adding to the richness of the painting. I hope you'll agree.

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