Sunday, March 2, 2014

Color Temperature - Starting with the Local Color

Canyon Snows, 9x12 oil/paper
Available at Auction!  Click here for details.

I just finished up a really great three-Saturday "Plein Air Essentials" class for the Sedona Arts Center.  Most of the students were local, but I also had two winter residents from Michigan and Alaska.  All were good painters, so we had the opportunity to fly through some of the basics and move on toward more advanced topics.

One advanced topic is color temperature.  Although the beginner certainly needs to understand that we are talking about the psychological sense of warm and cool in the landscape - warm colors like reds and yellows, cool colors like blues and violets - it's a complex subject.  It goes beyond the basic concept that warm light will create cool shadows, and that cool light will create warm shadows.

For starters, color temperature relationships can be so subtle that the camera can't capture them.  It exaggerates the relationship or just gets it plain wrong.  And you can't invent it in the studio.  You really need to have the experience of observing it first-hand, from life.  Learning to observe this kind of thing is a skill that must be honed.  The more you do of it, the more discerning your eye will become.

There's much more I can say on the subject of color temperature, but for now, let me note that it's useful for putting depth into your landscapes.  Look at the demonstration painting of a Grand Canyon scene, above.  I started it with the understanding that the three vertical planes of rock - looking at the snowed-in, closest one and going all the way into the distance, are composed of the same type of rock.  If you were to get within a foot of each of those cliffs, you would see this, and notice also that they were the same color.  So, I mixed up a batch of this reddish "local color."  Then, knowing that a certain color will appear warmer if it is closer to you and cooler if it is farther away,  I modified this batch.  When I wanted a cooler version for the distant cliffs, I added a cooler red -- alizarin crimson -- and ultramarine blue (plus a little white.)  For the closest cliff, I warmed the "local color" by adding a warmer red -- cadmium red.

By the way, I painted all the cliffs as though they were in shadow and added sunlight at the very end by just warming up (and lightening) each cliff's version of "local color" appropriately.  Another approach would be to create two initial batches of "local color," one batch for shadows and the other for sunlit passages.  Then, you could warm up or cool down each batch accordingly, depending on where you were painting with respect to distance in the painting.  Each sunlit/shadow pair would sit in its proper space in the picture because of your careful tuning of color temperature.

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