by George Allen Durkee


While you can't actually paint light, you can paint what it does. Imagine you have gone into your studio at night and have closed the door . . . it's dark. You can feel your way around, but without light you can't see a thing. Now turn on the light. You still can't actually see what's in your studio; what you do see is light reflecting off of all the stuff. You see light in all its colored variations bouncing off the surfaces of everything around you. Colors look the way they do because surface materials absorb some light rays while reflecting others, resulting in what we call local color. For example, that smudge of Cadmium Orange on your taboret absorbs blue and reflects yellow and red, which makes the light appear orange. That's part of the story; there is more.

Local color + the color of the light = the color you see.

Prove this to yourself with the following experiment. Place a blue object in a room without artificial light. Now light it with an incandescent lamp and see how yellow light combines with blue to make the object appear more green.

Whoever figured this out gave us painters a major hint in our attempts to depict, say, a bright sunny day, an overcast day, morning, evening or fog. The color of the light changes, according to weather conditions and the time of day. Knowing this helps you convey the ambiance of your landscape. Here are five varying light conditions that you will most often encounter. Of course, Nature doesn't always express herself in the formulaic ways the following descriptions may imply. They simply give you clues about what to look for.

Warm Sunlight with Clear Sky>

Think of this mood as having two light sources; one is warm and the other is cool. Sunlit objects are strongly influenced by bright, warm light from the sun. Objects not lit by the sun take on some of the cool light from the blue sky. This doesn't mean sunlit objects are yellow and shadows blue. It does mean that the colors of sunlit objects change in the direction of warm and shadows change toward cool. Cast shadows will often appear lighter and cooler farther away from the object casting them. This is because they pick up more cool light from the blue sky.


While the color of the light on an overcast day can be warm, or cool, more often it is somewhere in between. Mostly, you see the local color of objects because the light spectrum is evenly balanced. The overall value key is a little darker than on a sunlit day. If the cloud layer is thin, local colors may take on a slight warmish cast because some of the warm sunlight radiates through the cloud cover. Heavy overcast, especially with very much moisture in the air, can cause the landscape to appear cool. If everything is wet from rain, colors deepen in the same way as when you dip a dry rock in water.

Morning light>

The first light of the day is red, so the color of light-struck objects will be red-ish, but only for a short period of time. The color of the light will quickly change to orange. Vertical planes in shadow may first appear as grays because the world is not yet fully lit and the sky is not yet fully blue.

<Evening Light

As evening approaches, sunlit objects first become more orange, gradually transitioning to red. As the color of the light changes, shadow planes at first are cool because their light comes from the blue sky; then they gradually become warmer as red light saturates the atmosphere. Some people refer to this time of day as "the violet hour" because red light combines with blue reflected light from the sky, giving the world a violet cast. We painters only wish we had an entire hour to catch this fleeting mood!


 Fog is the easiest mood to read and paint. On a foggy day, everything takes on some of the color of moisture laden air. (Fog.) The farther away things are, the more air you have to look through. Distant objects appear as silhouetted shapes and are simply a slightly darker variation of the color of the fog itself. Next closer objects have a little less of the fog color in them, and nearest objects only a little fog color or none at all. How hard can this be? The general principle is that you mix up a pile of fog color and then add it in appropriate amounts to the colors of your subject. Of course, that's just a recipe. Nature isn't always so cooperative. If you paint from life, you can read the actual colors in the moment. The recipe helps you understand what you're seeing.

Take Your Color Cues from Nature

Photographs often misrepresent or completely fail to record indispensable parts of the light spectrum. When you work from actual subjects you can capture the authentic way the landscape looks. To create art that touches the hearts and imaginations of those who see your work, paint from life and observe from life as often as you can. See for yourself how the color of the light makes the world look and feel the way it does right now in this moment. Because the color of the light changes over time, you may need to relinquish some finesse in your working method; you won't have time for niceties. Work small so you can complete your work in a shorter period of time. Aim instead for immediacy; get the paint onto the canvas and move on. Later, if you want to create more refined work, use your plein air studies for color notes. You can read more about how color works along with a full range of other painting principles in my book, Expressive Oil Painting  (North Light 2009). There are loads of color illustrations and diagrams that are explained with a minimum of text. I hope you get it and read it.

Thanks for listening,

George Allen Durkee



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