"Apple Tree with a View" 9x12, pastel, en plein air (click for larger image)
If winter begins late, often spring does, too. For a painter, a late spring can be a trying time.
When the last snow finally melted, the robins, who had been lurking about most of the winter, came out in droves. The grass suddenly sprang up green. The first, tentative catkins appeared on the alders, followed by the red maple flowers. Waterfowl we hadn't seen in a year suddenly dropped anchor in our bay, filling every dawn with their squawks and pipings. And the apple trees finally showed a few green leaves.
Old-timers here say that when the apple trees bloom, the Island is at its prettiest. I really wanted to paint them at their fullest. The grass grew taller, and the fellow who mows our dooryard said he'd be firing up his tractor soon. Still no blossoms. The weather warmed, and fiddleheads popped up. The daffodils came and went. Raspberry canes thickened with the green of uncountable tiny leaves. Still no blossoms, and the leaves of the apple trees swelled, unfurled and cloaked the limbs. I began to despair that the trees would not bloom at all.
But then the right day came, and our rambling orchard of hundred-year-old apple trees exploded into white.
Most beginning painters hear about "color temperature" at some point in their education. I did, and it seems a simple concept. Blues are cool; yellows and reds are warm. But, as we all learn, temperature relationships can be a great deal more complex.
For example, temperature is relative. A certain blue next to a certain yellow may appear warm or cool. The rule we learned in our early days is, in fact, more an exception than a rule. Another example has to do with light and shadow. Some painters stick cool blues and purples in shadows as a matter of course, perhaps on the assumption that shadows are always cool. Personal experience does show that it can be 10 degrees cooler in the shade on a hot summer day, but this has nothing to do with color temperature. Sometimes the sunlight is yellow and warm, and we do indeed see the shadows as purplish and cool. But at other times, the sunlight has a cooler quality, more of a yellow-green, which pushes the shadows into a warmer, reddish-purple. Further complicating the issue is cool skylight, which can bounce blue down into the shadows. And what if you have a warm color, such as orange tree bark, in the cool shadows? Life can get quite complicated for a painter.
Lately, I've been keeping color temperature foremost in mind while doing 5x7 oil sketches. I've figured out a sequence of steps so color temperature works for me and not against me:
Determine whether the sunlight is cool or warm
Verify that the shadow is the complement (and if it's not, re-evaluate the sunlight)
Once determined, stick with your determination
Push the color relationship (that is, if the light is cool, make it more so, and make the shadows even warmer)
Finally, objects in light or shadow, regardless of their inherent warmth or coolness, must always share the temperature (that is, orange tree bark in a cool shadow should be made cooler than you think it is)
By the way, to make colors warmer or cooler, here's what I do. First, I use a split-complementary palette and arrange my colors spectrally, from yellow to red to blue. Then, to make a color warmer, I find where it sits on my palette and then move toward "warm" and add a bit of the color right next to it. So, for example, if I want to warm up my Alizarin Crimson, I add a bit of Cadmium Red Light. The same goes for cooling, only I move in the other direction. to cool Alizarin Crimson, I'll add a bit of Ultramarine Blue. (If a color is as warm as it can be, and I still need it warmer, I will cool down the color adjacent to it on the canvas. Temperature is relative.)
Here are two sketches I did this week. It's springtime, and the sunlight at mid-day, which is when I painted them, is definitely cool. I pushed the temperature relationships to emphasize this and the warmth in the shadows. (As always, you can click on the image and see a larger version.)
"Flat Water" 5x7, oil
"Appletree, Birches & Bluets" 5x7 oil
Post Script: After writing this essay, I had someone ask me for a demonstration in pastel of the same approach. Here, by request, are two pastel. First, Cool light, warm shadows:
"Spring Greens, Dark Firs" 5x7, pastel, en plein air
It's only in recent times that the "plein air as performance art" method of painting has become popular and, to many minds, the only way to paint when outdoors. We can attribute this purist — or in some extreme cases, zealot — approach to the French Impressionists. They're the ones who would go out, paint in a two-hour frenzy, and call their "impressions" of the landscape finished. But traditionally, going back to the Hudson River School painters and beyond, painters went out to create sketches. These sketches, some in charcoal with scrawled notes about color, others in pastel, watercolor or even oil, were not considered worthy of exhibition. Instead, the artists intended for them to be merely field notes upon which larger, more time-intensive studio pieces would be based.
Today, many artists still take this traditional approach. Others, who paint mostly en plein air but don't cross the line from being purists to zealots, will take their sketches to the studio and refine them. Rather than creating an entirely new work, they will take what they did in the field and refine or enhance it. I almost always end up refining my work in the studio. It's rare when that "performance piece" turns out to be satisfactory. My refinements run the gamut from adding a single stroke to wiping out whole sections and repainting them. (More the former; much less the latter.)
I offer a painting I did last week, "Spring Comes to Snug Cove." I went out to sketch apple trees in bloom, but as the late spring still hadn't given what I was hoping for, I settled on sketching clouds and a view of the cliffs near Snug Cove. Perhaps because I wasn't emotionally involved with the scene at the start, I analyzed the scene with detached interest and did a good job of pinning it down. As I worked, the scene began to excite me, my involvement grew, and I realized that my analysis was "right on." I was very pleased with the painting when I got it home.
But after a day on the "viewing mantle," I saw a problem. The two humps that make up the cliff on the left were identical in roundness and size. I needed to vary one so my eye wouldn't be drawn to that unintentional symmetry (even though it was really there!) So, to the left hump I changed the grassy edge, added more fallen rocks and a tiny bit of blue-gray for sky color. This tiny refinement escaped me in the field, and it was necessary to spend some time in the studio to make it a better painting. If a larger refinement was needed, I wouldn't have hesitated to take a big brush and wipe out whole sections.
Here are the before and after closeups of those two humps, followed by the final version. (And, as always, you can click on the small images for a larger picture.)
Final Version: SOLD "Spring Comes to Snug Cove" 9x12, pastel
Well, we're still waiting for spring here in the Canadian Maritimes. The grass is growing, but the apple trees and lilacs have yet to bloom. I'm especially anxious to paint these! For the time being, however, we've had some typical, changeable, springtime weather. I went out to Con Robinson's Point, in the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park, and painted the view across the Channel to Grand Manan Island. It was a very windy day with whitecaps on the water, and the sunlight dropping through the fast-moving clouds illuminated the water with a fascinating, greenish light.
This was one of those very simple compositions that works well with the knife. I had large areas of analogous colours to lay in. I used the knife exclusively on this one. The painting is still wet, so I have it on my "viewing mantle". You can see the tips of the little Lucite stand at the bottom.
"Wind Over the Grand Manan Channel" 8x10, oil/panel, en plein air. (As always, you can click on the image for a larger version.)
Winter came late, and now it looks like spring will, too. May 1st -- or "May Day," a time when one thinks of maypoles and May dances and flowers bursting into bloom -- was a dreary day here on the island. Misting drizzle and 39 degrees. But it was a perfect day for painting a little swamp near Eagle Hill Bog.
I've had my eye on this spot for some time. The dormant bushes are a deep, saturated red. It's the kind of color that shows better when the sky is overcast, and better yet when a little drizzle is coming down. I'm sure you've seen the same effect if you live in a place that has dramatic fall foliage. The yellows and reds always look washed out on a sunny day, but darn near incandescent on an overcast one. Such it was with my swamp.
I love the abstract quality of this scene. The dead snags add a lonely quality to it.
"May 1 - Still Waters," 8x10, oil/panel, en plein air.(Click on the image for a larger version.)