In the world of our paintings, we always want to convey a sense that the light source — be it cool, warm, or deeply colored — could actually produce the colors we see on the subject. This is a kind of “color parallelism” and it’s in perfect alignment with the idea (in representational painting) that we paint not the color of things, but the color of the light that falls on those things. This is particularly important in landscape painting because the light source — the sky — is very often part of the subject.
Working too closely from a photo, especially if it is under- or over-exposed, can make it nearly impossible to suggest a unifying color-light within the painting. In this demonstration, my goal was to resurrect an improperly exposed sunset image, and establish a convincing color and value relationship between the sky and ground.
Note: Although I am a big proponent of using photo reference, I believe that directly copying photos is one the biggest mistakes a painter can make. For more information about the problems endemic in using photo reference, see the posting: The Tyranny of Photo Reference or the chapter in my book, Working from Photographs.
Original photo: The original, unaltered photo is overexposed, and appears very washed out. It demonstrates a common photographic problem when shooting high contrast subjects. The camera can only make a single exposure based on how dark or light it reads the subject. The trouble is, the camera is very poor at finding a compromise exposure between darks and lights, as there usually are between the land and the sky, especially at sunset. When the photo is exposed for the sky it has lots of saturation and color, but the ground turns to black. The opposite happens when the photo is exposed for the ground. The ground is well exposed, but the sky “blows out” to white and loses all of its color, as in this example. When shooting photographic reference, then, the solution is simply to take two photos, one that exposes for the sky and one that exposes for the land. If you only want to take one photo, err on the side of exposing for the sky and letting the land get dark. If the sky blows out to white, it is not recoverable; that is, the color information simply hasn’t been captured in the image. However, there is usually lots of detail hidden in the darks, which can be brought out using the Shadow/Highlight filter in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. (For instructions, see notes at end of article.)
Values adjusted in original. The original image is simply darkened, which alone is a big improvement. The additional contrast and saturation of the foreground colors, even as muted neutrals, is much more convincing.
Fully modified photo. 1. I darkened the ground further and gave it considerably more contrast. 2. I also shifted the color of the ground toward red, so if felt like it was picking up some of the color from the sunset sky. 3. I inserted a sunset sky from another well-exposed photo, replacing what was missing in the original. 4. I ran the entire image through a shape filter in Photoshop to give it the appearance of a painting. Steps 2 and 3 were the key to creating a convincing light. Not only are the colors of the sky and land “exposed” properly, but the color of the ground has been modified to feel like it is actually being influenced by the color of the red sunset. The final version may be a far cry from the original, with much of the color “invented;” however, it does demonstrate an important truth about landscape light: there is a direct relationship between the color of the sky and the color of the land. To be convincing, the ground colors must have the appearance of being influenced by a light of a particular color.
Using the Shadow/Highlight filter in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements
Applying the Shadow/Highlight filter lightens the values of the dark shadows, which reveals more color and detail. Similar results can be achieved with Levels, but I find Shadow/Highlight more specific; it seems to target just the darks.
In Photoshop … Image > Adjustments > Shadow/Highlight …
In Elements … Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Shadow/Highlight …
A dialog box with a slider will come up which previews the change to the photo. By default, the amount it uses in “Shadows” is too high. Usually, lowering that amount will give best results, but each photograph is different.