Painting Tips: Lessons from a Solar Eclipse

Millions were treated to the total solar eclipse in the US this week. Aside from a surreal source of inspiration, there is quite a lot this unmatched spectacle can teach us about light and painting.

To help us consider the sun’s lesson, we look to a fascinating effect that accompanies an eclipse. The shadows cast by objects will take on a bizarre pattern as the light from the sun is occluded by the moon. The eclipsed light through a tree will generate thousands of overlapping crescents upon the ground.

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Image credit: http://www.onemanswonder.com/2011_11_01_archive.html

The reason this happens comes from the diffraction of the sun’s light off of the surface of each leaf. Diffraction is a physical phenomenon, in which light is redirected or bent around the edges of an object. The many light rays originating from the crescent sun approach each part of the leaf from slightly different angles. After diffracting from the leaf’s surface, those individual light rays will project a flipped image of the eclipsed sun on the ground. This is, of course, exactly how a pin-hole camera works.

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Well, that’s interesting, but how does it help us as painters? If we realize that this diffraction effect is happening all the time, even under normal lighting conditions, we can take advantage of this knowledge and render more realistic images. Consider the diffraction of normal sunlight through a tree. What may not have been obvious before, should now be clear: the tree’s cast shadow on the ground is made up of hundreds of circles of light! The projection is composed of overlapping circles, because the sun’s image is (normally) circular.

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If you’ve struggled to paint this type of fuzzy shadow before, now you may have more success. You can use a round brush to build up the shadow’s pattern through the layering of various circular dabs of light. Each dab of paint should be varied in value, and depending on the surface upon which the shadow is cast, the chroma may vary by location. If you build up this effect enough, a realistic portrayal of your subject will begin to take form. Of course, always remember to use your discretion and observe your subject with a discerning eye. Without this consideration, the effect your creating may look like a cheap trick and produce a more shallow, kitschy appearance. If done correctly, you will have a pleasantly soft impression of the tree’s shade.

Studio Lighting

Our lesson about diffraction can also inform our decisions about studio lighting for subjects painted indoors. The smaller the source of light (e.g. a pinhole, LED, small window) and the further the light is from your subject, the crisper your subject’s cast shadows will appear. Those who witnessed the eclipse may have noticed the crispness of their shadow just before totality. On the other hand, the larger the light source and the closer it is to your subject, the more diffused the cast shadows will be. Rembrandt used to take advantage of this effect. He often would place his subject in an unlit room beneath a single skylight — a large source of light at a relatively close distance. This quality of light produced his signature softness and moody atmosphere.

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Featured eclipse image credit: Yuri Shwedoff

 

Getting into Shape

Have you ever painted a subject, maybe a landscape or still life, and were disappointed at how all the elements in the painting felt somehow disjointed – as if the composition didn’t quite flow as well as you had planned? It’s a common problem, and perhaps, sometimes one the artist doesn’t even realize is the source of their frustration. There are a few solutions to this dilemma. However, one of the most effective strategies is to simplify shapes. This doesn’t mean that a square should be reduced to a circle! It means that adjacent forms should be combined when possible to create cohesion and simplicity in an otherwise complex subject. This technique is also known as massing.

Take for example, the serene painting above, by T. Allen Lawson. I can’t help but relish in the middle grouping of pines. In truth, it is one shape. Each tree blends into its neighbor, leaving one solid form. The effect this has on the viewer can hardly be overstated. The simplification of this landscape is not only easier on the eyes but helps to distill the essence of the artist’s expression. This isn’t a painting about trees; it’s a story of a blissful, natural harmony. The viewer knows that there are trees in the forest. We don’t need to show them every needle and pinecone. In fact, the eye prefers not to be shown all the details. Furthermore, our mind is thrilled to fill in the details itself! We struggle as artists to please as many types of viewers as possible, but why do all the heavy-lifting when you can let the viewers do the job themselves? By reducing shapes and form, each viewer will read between the lines and see what he or she wants to see, engaging their own imagination, subconsciously dreaming up more exciting details than you or I could probably produce ourselves.

There are many important tools in a painter’s reserve but massing is one of the most effective. You may have noticed that this technique is closely related to edges – in particular, lost edges, which I wrote about in the last post. Essentially, the simplification of shapes is achieved through omitting edges or removing details altogether.

An understanding and mastery of simplifying edges is especially essential to the watercolorist. I’ll leave you with a painting by one of my favorites, Joseph Zbukvic. Talk about massing! The interconnected shadows and horses in this painting were all done in nearly one flowing wash.

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On the Edge

 

One of the most exciting aspects of a good painting tends also to be one of the most overlooked: edges. The majority of painters seem to be well aware of the importance of good draftsmanship, composition, sense of color and perhaps value. However, the concept of edges too often seems the forgotten virtue. But a painting without a consideration for edges is like a cake without icing or a bride without jewelry. In fact, a painting without carefully planned edges is perhaps less than these things; in addition to a beautiful feature, edges can aid in storytelling and composition — directing the viewers’ eyes to the salient aspects of an image and sharing the artist’s vision in a magical way.

In the above painting, by Zhao Ming Wu, notice the contrast of hard and soft edges to the woman’s figure. Follow the contour of the form and observe what are called lost-and-found edges — edges which come and go. Make note of how the hard edges draw your attention. The human eye is specially designed to hone in on hard, well-defined edges, particularly when those edges denote a sharp transition in value. A painter can use the four types of edges — hard, soft, lost, and found — to her advantage, by choosing to save those hard edges for the focal points of the image.

At first, giving up on uniformly hard edges can be more challenging than one might expect. After all, many realist painters spend a great deal of time practicing their ability to faithfully copy their subject. But after some practice, one starts to notice which edges can be softened or lost altogether. For example, in the above painting, the contour of the knee and thigh is completely missing. The only clue to the leg’s form is the shift in color temperature from the bed sheets to the body. If that contour had instead been painted with a hard edge, it would have been a distraction, pulling the eye from the more interesting parts of the image. With these soft, missing edges, we find our eyes dancing around the painting — the shoulder, the rear, the hand, and feet. How would it feel if painted any other way?

A Choreographed Chaos

 

In this gripping landscape, by Alexey Alpatov, a fusion of realism and abstraction is masterfully achieved. Between a sweeping palette knife and bold brushwork, a series of shapes seems to give way to recognizable form – as if the cliff were growing out from the chaos of paint. How was this effect achieved? This is the result of a marriage between vision and technique.

When I look at this painting, I see both hemispheres of Alpatov’s brain hard at work. First and foremost, there is evidence of a clear understanding of form, value, color, and edge – aspects of the painting that give it its sense of realism by accurately emulating the physics of light, and that serve the ‘readability’ of the painting through composition and the general design. Secondly, there is a strong sense of vision – the emotion felt by the painter, which informs the choice of style and breathes life into the image.

These two tools, vision and technique, are required to achieve such a painting. Make no mistake: realistic paintings such as this one, which feature bold brushstrokes and bravura, may suggest a devil-may-care approach to execution, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is a highly choreographed chaos. Notice the subtle color temperature shifts in the cliff face – how the surface color saturates with warm light as the stone reflects upon itself. It all looks like an accident but its realistic accuracy reveals its secret. This was a very carefully constructed painting.

More details on how to achieve these effects in coming posts.

For a high resolution image of the painting, click this link.

The Value of Value

Take a look at the images below. On the left is an original painting by Geoffrey Warburton, and on the right is my edited version, in which I spent a couple minutes working on its values. Overall, the original image is well drawn, meaning the shapes appear to be accurately rendered. However, the painting’s unrealistic values prevent the scene from feeling lifelike.

value demonstration copy

In my last post, we talked about the importance of values in painting realistic scenes. Inaccurate values (the dark and light aspects of an image) plague countless would-be-great paintings. Why is this such a common problem and how can we fix it?

Can you spot the differences between the before and after images? Which version ‘pulls’ the viewer in more? Without a reference photo of the actual forest, any adjustments are just approximations, but improvements can still be made. In general, the edited version appears darker but not completely so — several of the original elements have been left untouched. This reveals the number-one mistake most painters make with values: not going dark enough. The main problem stems from the amazing human eye. Our eyes are actually too good. By constantly adjusting their sensitivity to varying light levels, shadows that should appear dark in relation to brighter lit areas actually look, to the untrained eye, lighter than they truly are!One of the most effective ways to prevent from ‘over-seeing’ in the shadows is to squint down one’s eyes. By squinting, we reduce the overall value of our subject. This helps prevent our eyes from overworking and makes value relationships easier to discern. Give it a try and let me know in the comments if squinting works for you. 

What’s Real?

 

This stunning painting, by Mark Tennant, pushes the concept of realism to its limit. With so little information to guide the viewer, why does it still appear so realistic? The answer lies mainly in strong draftsmanship and an accurate use of values. These two qualities are the most important skills to master for any aspiring realism artist.

Draftsmanship or the ability to draw shapes and proportions accurately is usually the first skill an artist attempts to master. However, the importance of values — or how to render light and dark features correctly in relation to each other — is often overlooked or improperly executed by beginners (not to mention many professionals!).

The human eye, as advanced as it is, evolved from what was originally just a few light-sensitive cells. For a long time, all one could perceive was shades of grey blobs. And for this reason, the perception of value is still the most deeply associated quality we equate with visual reality.

So, how do we master value painting? More on that in the next post.