It’s early September and the plein air painting season is drawing to a close (at least for those of us in the unfortunate climes). As I’ve been working with students in my workshops and painting outside on my own, I’ve been reflecting on the nature of observation and the different way I think about color when working outdoors and when I’m working in the studio.
When I’m in the studio I usually work from photos. I use them to explore compositional options or reference the particulars of a subject, such as drawing and detail, but I never use the photo to reference color. (In fact, I consider copying photographic color one of the biggest faux pas a painter can make.) In the studio I invent color. I may call upon my years of experience observing color in nature, but the colors are my own. There’s no talk in my head that says, “Well that’s a blue sky, so I need to make it blue.” In the studio, I don’t choose colors in that way. Instead, I develop a color strategy that fits my particular goals for that painting.
When I’m outside, however, it’s a very different story. There I am engaged in an intense conversation with nature, observing the colors before me, attempting to perform a type of direct translation. I am trying to mix colors that are close to what I am seeing — identifying the particular hue, how brilliant or dull that hue is, and of course the value. If I see a subtle orange hue in the treetops, I try to mix the color as I see it. This is what colorists refer to as perceived color. Perceived color is the color of something as it actually appears to our eye under the influence of a particular color of light. Local color, on the other hand, corresponds to our preconceived idea of what color something is, based on previous experience, such as green grass or blue skies.
Now any landscape painter (or painter of any genre, for that matter) who has ever attempted to translate natural light into pigment knows that mere pigment and canvas can never match the brilliance and intensity of natural light. In my book, Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice, I explain, “This is because natural light and painter’s pigments are not the same thing. The sky illuminates brilliantly. It breathes light. The canvas only reflects light; it cannot actually glow. The brilliance of nature — the intensity of a field of sun-struck poppies or the radiance of the sun dancing on the water — is simply not possible with paint.” All our efforts to work with color in a representational way must take this into account. So we compensate by manipulating color and value beyond what is actually seen in nature. We use the colors we see in the natural world as a starting point, but getting the “right” color is never about matching color hue-for-hue.
Mitchell Albala. Azure and Asphalt, 2012, oil on paper, 7.5 x 14. In this plein air piece, I was most interested in capturing the glare of brilliant sunlight light on the streets as the sun set. Can I truly do that with paint and pigment? Never. But with an eye toward perceived color, I am engaged in the plein air painter’s most essential form of observation. See more paintings from the Azure and Asphalt series at my portfolio site.
When directly observing nature there is a strong urge to follow perceived color and “paint what we see” (insofar as the limitations of paint and canvas allow). But even within the constraints of that exercise there is a difference between engaging in direct observation that respects perceived color and making the color up entirely. If we are simply going to select colors that have no relationship with the actual landscape, then we are missing the plein air painter’s most important observational exercise. Perceived color is like the Rosetta Stone of plein air painting. It allows us to take the rich and varied colors of natural light and translate them into paint and canvas.
Mitchell Albala, Border Peak in Sunlight, 2010, oil on panel, 12 x 12. In this painting executed in the studio, I am also very interested in the glare of sunlight. But unlike Azure and Asphalt (above), which is based on an observed color experience, Border Peak uses color in a more inventive way. I may recall what the glare of brilliant sunlight looks like and how it felt to me, but to capture those sensations in the studio, I don’t refer to the photo. Instead I build a unique color strategy that fits my vision for that particular painting.
from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice:
Real Light vs. Panter’s Light: The Limitations of Paint – page 104
Plein Air Demonstration – page 152
Studio Demonstration – page 156
Plein Air Painting: Beginning at the Source – page 34