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


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. With the artist’s permission, I am reproducing a post by Jerry Fresia. His discussion of the choices one has when painting the sun — whether to place the emphasis 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

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

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

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 Author

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller with over 34,000 copies in print, it is regarded as the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art, Pacific Northwest Art School, artEAST, Winslow Art Center, and 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 in Seattle.


  1. Carol Hartman on

    Thank you for article. Great food for thought. After many years of arguing that truth is in the black-and-white, emotion and “the moment” happens with color, I now always go for color when plein air painting. It just feels more exciting. Your article helps explain that to me.

  2. Once again a very informative article, thanks for that. I was particularly struck by your comments about resonating and vibrating with light as that is a foundational principle of the Sufi order with respect to the order of the universe.

  3. Gerry Conley on

    Thanks for sharing this Mitch. It is highly suitable that the painting which caused the coining of the name for Impressionism be used here to demonstrate that copying nature as it was would have destroyed the “impression” Monet clearly felt and wanted to express.

    This demo offers also the opportunity to reflect on an aspect of the physics of our eyes. We have that ability to focus on one degree, In space it is the diameter of the sun. Notice how little of the scene that represents! When we focus on the sun at sunset we are effectively casting everything else into peripheral vision. Ditto for each object in any scene that we carefully study. Our vision process is one of constantly zooming in and out with far more capability than any digital camera will ever have. One of the things a landscape painter has to decide is what section of the painting is going to be in focus and what will be in peripheral vision, dropping detail and value contrast in the latter. (The moon is 9/10th of a degree.)

  4. I think it should be noted that what makes the spot in Monet’s painting a sun is color. We identify the sun as fiery red in a sunset or when the atmosphere is thick. Changing that spot to white immediately conveys the idea of a full moon. I see it that way.

  5. Julie Campbell on

    Great insights Mitch! And great discussion here … really interesting and thought-provoking comments. Your posts are always inspiring, and tempt me to skip work and seek out my studio! Thanks again!

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