New Work in Azure and Asphalt: “Warm Horizon” and the Art of Implication

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Fresh off the easel, Warm Horizon, Between Ballard and Leary Ways, is a good representation of the process I follow in works from the Azure and Asphalt series — converting a colorless, over-detailed and sprawling subject into a light-filled, implied landscape.

I refer to Warm Horizon as “implied” because it attempts to strike that delicate balance between representation and abstraction. How do I offer enough visual cues to make it reasonably clear to the viewer that it is an urban landscape, but few enough that it doesn’t distract from my primary interest, light and atmosphere?

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Mitchell Albala, Warm Horizon, Between Leary and Ballard Ways, 2015, oil on panel, 16 x 16 inches. Available.

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While the source photo provides the seed of an idea,   it gives me too much of the kind of information I don’t want: excess detail and none of the color I envision. Doing painted and digital studies allows me to free myself from the tyranny of the photo and instead focus on the visual issues that are most important to me.

Plein air paintings or small color sketches have a gestural and expressive quality that naturally lends itself to implying shape and form. But when developing a larger painting, over the course of many sessions, achieving those same implied effects require a fair mount of deliberateness and control.

All the works in this series are bathed in thick atmospheric perspective. In the bluish ground plane, for instance, the buildings are barely suggested. The color and value shifts necessary to do this are incredibly subtle. I also make sure that all edges remain very soft. In a highly atmospheric subject like this, a sharp edge would be inconsistent with all that atmosphere.

Two types of studies: painted and digital

I do two types of studies before starting any painting, a traditional color study painted by hand (what we might call the old school approach), and a digital study generated in Photoshop (the new school). Both solve different kinds of problems. I always say that the painter is a much better colorist than the camera will ever be. A color study allows me to find the color scheme that best fits the “color-light” I envision for the painting, instead of relying on the unimaginative color of the photo. The color study is also a great way to flex my color mixing muscles and get to know my subject in the form of a very low-pressure exercise. (Also see Using Photographs Like an Artist and Getting the Light Right: The Power of the Color Study.)

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Mitchell Albala, Study, Warm Horizon, Between Ballard and Leary Ways, 2015, oil on paper, 7.25 x 7.25 inches. In Warm Horizon, I wanted to capture the warmth and brilliance of mid- to late-afternoon summer light. This study was developed in two layers: an initial warm undertone, followed by an overtone of cooler, semi-transparent blue which developed the structure of the composition. The yellow undertone shows through in nearly every area, which adds to the luminosity of the piece.

The digital study (below) informs me in different ways. By applying one or more Photoshop filters, I can create an “altered” photograph that suggests how a painted version of the subject might look. The filters produce effects that simplify the subject in the extreme, reveal basic shapes and values, and get rid of details that may distract me from the “big picture.” In fact, I often work from the digital and color studies alone, not the original photo.

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Digital Study, Warm Horizon, Between Leary and Ballard Ways. I applied three different Photoshop filters to generate this study: “Artistic … Watercolor” which, although poorly named, is an excellent filter for simplifying shapes; “Brush Strokes … Accented Edges,” which exaggerated the highlights along the rooftops and streets; and finally “Noise” which added a specular diffusion across the entire image, simulating the soft-edged and atmospheric effect I wanted in the final painting. I also shifted the color of the photo in “Levels” to approximate the color-light I had worked out in the color study.

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Before and after. Subtle, but important changes were made between a later stage (left) and the final stage (right). 1. Although I had made efforts to subdue the intensity of the yellow along the horizon, I still thought it was too strong. I lightly glazed the horizon with mixture of blue and nickel titanate yellow. This allowed both the yellow and the blue to commingle and better convey the perceived color of the sunlight (yellow) and the local color of the sky (blue). 2. The large building in the middle seemed too obvious, both in color and shape. Applying the art of implication further, I softened the edges of the building and made its color more like the blues used elsewhere in the ground. 3. The thin vertical line (just to the left of the numeral “3”) was a holdover from the original photo. Eliminating it seemed to be less confusing. Less is nearly always more.

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A detail from the bottom right portion of the painting shows several effects:  1. softened edges; 2. the subtle texture that is present throughout, some of which is from the paint itself, and some from the texture of the gessoed panel; and 3. how very close in value and color are the different shapes of the buildings.


Additional Resources

New Works from the Azure and Asphalt Series

Azure and Asphalt Series with Commentary: Ownership of Style and the Meaning of Originality

Using Photographs Like an Artist

Getting the Light Right: The Power of the Color Study

The Tyranny of the Photo Reference

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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 35,000 copies in print, it has been called the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, 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.

8 Comments

  1. Mitch,
    Thank you for this informative explanation of your process. I love how you use digital methods to study your subject. And I agree, “the painter is a much better colorist than the camera will ever be.”

  2. Mitch, this is indeed another lovely painting in your series. Maybe this is too divergent from the points you wished to make, but to me the non building portion is elegant in its execution and deserves more discussion. First, it Is a reversal of the classic warm to cool recession. Second, the warm sky manages to fit in a middle space between a cool blue sky and a cool foreground! My explanation is that the sky is anchored in place like a fog on the flats of Ballard at its bottom and then woven Into the sky at the upper mid-left to hold it balanced in space there, marvelously, further back than the fog. Masterful and in my view meriting a discussion of what you went through to make that happen and look natural.

  3. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Gerry, as always as, for your keen eye. Your comment adds depth to the analysis of my piece, so I hope readers will continue on and see what you’ve written. Thanks!

  4. Stan Chraminski on

    I get some of this type of light here in Kona, Hawaii, but have yet to make enough use of it. You’ve shown me a great method to experiment with. Thanks again.

  5. Mitchell Albala on

    Aloha, Stan! I’m glad some of this Pacific Northwest light is touching you in Kona. You know — in the final analysis, it’s all kind of made up. There’s no such thing as “capturing” light in the true sense of the word. There is just a limited range of values, and a whole lot of colors — none of which can really approximate what actually occurs in nature. Bad news or good news? Good news actually! Because this gives us a chance to explore and invent and play with color. That’s job ONE for us landscape painters, whether in Hawaii, the Australian Outback, or Iceland.

  6. You saved me today. Working on a painting, trying to figure out how to increase the abstraction of the landscape, soften the edges, use closer values. Took a coffee break, opened your discussion of Azure and Asphalt and VOILA! There it all was, along with your gorgeous examples. I’m not there yet, but you’re helping me get to where I want to be. Thanks so much for your generosity and clear explanations.