Jerry Fresia: “On Painting The Sun: Monet’s Choice”

Jerry Fresia

"Warm Seduction" by Jerry Fresia. 36 x 25 in

by Jerry Fresia. Reprinted with permission of the artist.

Every once in a while I come across an article in the blogosphere that mirrors my own thinking on a certain topic, but has a different way of explaining it. This month, with the artist’s permission, I am reproducing a post by Jerry Fresia. His discussion of the choices one has when painting the sun — with an emphasis either on value or color — is very similar to the section in my book, How Value Effects Color Identity (page 114–117). His painting, Winter Glow, is also featured in my book, page 147.

Jerry Fresia runs art gallery and painting school that promotes the Impressionist experience in Lake Como, Italy. See his artwork, visit his blog, and find out more about his school at fresia.com.

If you paint the sun, you are always confronted with a specific choice: you either have to establish the correct value relationship by making the sun very light on your canvas, or you must go for the color, in which case the value relationship will not be right, but the color relationship will be closer to the truth.

The reason for this is simply that the highest value pigment we have is pure white. (It is unlikely we would even use pure white because a daub of pure would look “chalky” and artificial.) Once we add color, say, a tiny bit of cadmium yellow light, it would looks more realistic, but then the lightness of value is diminished by a tiny amount. And if we were to then mix in small amounts of cadmium orange or maybe vermillion, we would probably get closer to the actual color of the sun (particularly if it were low in the sky). However, at the same time, the value would decrease even further. Such is the nature of paint as compared to actual light, or energy. So the choice is either to go for the value; that is, white with a tiny bit of yellow (which would be the highest value/color note we could make), or to go for the color — a hot orangey-red, perhaps. It’s one or the other. But together are impossible. Let me use Monet’s famous Impression Sunrise to illustrate this point:

Above is the actual painting in color, and below that, the same painting soley in black-and-white. Notice how the sun in the black-and-white version practically disappears. What this means is that in the actual color painting, the sun is the same value as the darker blue colors. In other words, Monet has sacrificed value in order to get the color. Let’s see what it would have looked like had he done the reverse, if he had sacrificed color in order to get closer to the proper value relationship.

In the color version below, I have replaced Monet’s orangey-red sun and its reflection with white and a tiny bit of yellow. Notice that in the black-and white-version below that, the sun is the brightest thing in the sky; the value relationship is relatively correct. But in order to get closer to the correct value, the richness of the color is lost.

Here’s the point: there is no way to get rich color and high (light) value with paint. It comes down to choice. Some artists (George Inness comes to mind) have made wonderful paintings where the sun is bright but weak in color. Monet, however, always seems to have gone for the color.

I am hopeful that this post will provide some food for thought without feeding a mechanical process that becomes formulaic. It is important, even necessary, to have knowledge in the back of your head, but when you are painting, the process must be driven by your as you become one with nature, when you resonate or vibrate with the light that is absorbing you, and you it. It would be unwise to say, “I’m going to approach it the way Monet did as opposed to the way Inness did.” Rather, wait until you get there. Open yourself to seduction. Will you get lost in the warm volcanic vermillion of the sun’s warmth or will you surrender to the bright dancing notes of a sparkling sun?

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
How Value Effects Color Identity, pages 114–117

from this blog:
Playing Studio Detective with a Film of Monet Painting at Giverny
Part 3: “In Sunlight” — Beyond Value with Border Peak
The Affect of Value on Color Identity in Impressionist Painting

About Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). Now in its fifth printing, it has sold almost 30,000 copies and is regarded as the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, he currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art, Pacific Northwest Art School, artEast, and in 2015 Arte Umbria in Italy. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. He is represented by Lisa Harris Gallery. See his paintings at mitchalbala.com.