Like many landscape painters, I work from photographs and studies during the cold winter months. When the plein air season arrives, and colors spring to life, I head outdoors to re-engage in that timeless one-to-one conversation with color. So often, as I begin to paint, I experience a ritual reawakening. I never cease to be awestruck by how much more color I see outside than in the studio.
I had a particularly vivid experience of this “reawakening” at a recent workshop I taught in Italy. One of our excursions took us to Lubriano, a small village in Umbria. Here visitors can gaze across the valley to the ancient hilltop city of Bagnoregio. Lubriano offers a panoramic view of the valley and its tuff cliffs, aglow in the morning light.
I was amazed by how much color I saw. My brush flew around the palette, searching for the color mixtures that might capture the subtle blues, violets and golden earth tones I saw. This was the experience of living color. Later, when I looked at the photo I had taken, I noted that It lacked nearly all the rich color I had seen.
Of course, photographs are incapable of capturing the luminosity we see with our eyes. The stark difference between my painting and the photo underscores the object lesson: how we interpret colors outdoors is different from how we interpret color in the studio.
Direct and indirect observation
With direct observation there is nothing between me and the subject but the air. I can see every nuance of light and shadow and color my eyes are capable of registering. This is the gift of plein air. Part of the excitement of painting outdoors is trying to “capture” the colors I see. If I see golden greens on the hills of Lubriano, then those are the colors I try to mix. Can I create a color impression that is close to what I see? I know that pigments and canvas cannot compete with the luminosity and brilliance of actual light — but I try. That is the play of the outdoor painter.
In the studio, it is a different story. I have my inspiration, but I am once removed from the original subject. I have visual memory, photos, and perhaps sketches or color notes — but I am no longer connected to the living color. To the painter, the photo is an already resolved color problem. A subject observed directly is not. (See Using Photographs Like an Artist.)
I see the difference between interpreting color outdoors and in the studio in this way: in plein air I am much more involved in working with the colors I actually see. I take liberties, to be sure, but I am striving to be faithful to what I see. In the studio, it’s the reverse. The colors are more my own own. I may call upon my years of experience observing and mixing color in nature, but I am the inventor of my color plan. (See Ways of Interpreting Landscape Color: In the Studio vs. Plein Air.)
Even if the landscape painter works primarily in the studio, as I do, the experience of interpreting color live is essential. Working outdoors is the painter’s chance to drink from the source. Only in an experiential one-to-one relationship with nature can we learn how the light and color of the landscape can translate into paint.
Be sure to turn up the sound. You’ll hear the noon church bells in the background, heralding the completion of another painting. Video: Judith Kremen.