Thursday, October 8, 2015

Question about Lights and Darks

Picture by John VanHouten
Blog reader John VanHouten asks:

"Hey James,
I know you say on your website that you don't give personal art advice but this question is about light. Specifically, the phrase about the lightest darks being darker than the darkest lights. I'm working on a painting and I'm not sure if darkening the shadow area of the skeleton will make it lose its local color of yellowish off-white, because it would be darker than the lightest part of the dark cloak. Is the phrase about darkest lights and lightest darks just applied to only one object at a time or is it applied to a whole image like the skeleton AND the robe? What do you think?
Thanks, John"

Hi, John,
There are kind of two different principles at work here, and those principles sound similar, so they can be a little confusing.

1. One is that the darkest values on the lit side of a given object are almost always lighter than the lightest values of the same object in shadow. This is assuming that the object is of a fairly constant local color and a fairly matte surface, such as a skull, fabric, or skin. It would not apply to something patterned, glossy, or highly reflective. It's also assuming we're talking about sunlight or any strong light source with normal surfaces bouncing the light back into the shadow. Given those constraints, this one is nearly always true. You seem to be adhering to the principle in your picture.

2. The other principle is that in a black object lit by direct sunlight can often be lighter than a white object in shadow. You have also got that working in your picture, as the light side of the black cloak (left swatch) is a little lighter than the shadow side of the skull (right swatch). In my observation, this one only holds true under ideal conditions. Outdoors, you need to have a cloudless sky and not too much reflected light coming into the shadow side.

So as you guessed, the first rule applies to one object at a time and the second rule applies to the whole picture. These principles come up because students tend to underestimate the depth of shadows. They also tend to introduce too much tonal variation within the lights and too much tonal variation in the shadows. This happens because our visual brains use context cues to override the luminance information that our retinas actually receive.

You also mentioned a concern about maintaining the appearance of the local color of the skull as it moves from light into shadow. A white object can move through a wild range of colors as it absorbs different influences around it. I'm guessing that reflected light from the yellow tassel would spread a vertical glowing band of warm light—thought too light in value—to the area of the shadowed skull just to the left of the tassel.

One more thing: Can you get that student on a better meal plan?
Previously: Black is Light, White is Dark
More in my book: Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

New Life for an Elf Alien

Outsider Artist, oil by James Gurney
This oil painting of a frog-like alien artist currently appears in the museum exhibition "The Art of James Gurney." He holds a palette and a paintbrush loaded up with paint, while behind him is a dark fabric background.

But he didn't begin life that way. The earlier version of the oil painting was commissioned for a paperback cover about intergalactic war. It had a tighter cropping on his face, with a row of warriors painted in front of him.

I didn't really like the montage or the tight cropping or the warrior theme. I wanted to explore the little guy's character more. I figured that with those amazing eyes he would see the world differently from the rest of us. Maybe he could be an artist, the ultimate outsider artist.

Luckily I painted him on a white canvas panel with quite a bit of extra margin. So I sanded out the figures and the edge where I had taped off the rectangle.

To understand that froggy hand better, I sculpted a reference maquette out of Sculpey polymer clay over a framework of aluminum armature wire. I also sculpted the half-figure of the creature (below).

I could have just invented the hand from my imagination, and it might have been 95% as good, but it was that last 5% I was determined to get.
"The Art of James Gurney is an exhibition of about 25 original paintings on the UARTS campus in Philadelphia, through November 16.

The finished painting was published on the cover of Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist. The original paperback was called The Fleet: Sworn Allies by David Drake.

Previously on GurneyJourney: Elf Alien (Sketches and head maquette study)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Charles Harold Davis: Mystic Impressionist

Charles Harold Davis (1856-1933) Evening, 1886  
The Bruce Museum in Connecticut is holding a retrospective exhibition of American painter Charles Harold Davis, who captured a range of moods of his native New England landscapes.

He studied with Jules Joseph Lefebvre at the Académie Julian and painted in the forest of Fontainebleau, later settling in Mystic, Connecticut.

Charles Harold Davis, Change of Wind, c. 1927 Oil on canvas, 50 ⅛ x 60 ⅛ in
Davis is best known for his exuberant cloudscapes, painted after his style shifted from Barbizon-inspired tonalism to a more painterly impressionist style.

Exhibition of Charles Harold Davis at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut through January 3, 2016
Wikipedia on CHB
Thanks, Doug Andersen

Monday, October 5, 2015

Videos: Eyellusions, Ugly Babies, and Imagination

A few videos you might enjoy:

Using simple visual effects techniques that anyone can do—such as green screen, stop motion, and foreground miniatures—Hull and Train Exhibits created a short silent fantasy epic inspired by Melies. (Link to YouTube) Be sure to watch until 9:00 (or skip ahead) to see a behind-the-scenes sequence revealing how each gag was accomplished.

This video is part of the Eyellusions Exhibition opening in Frisco, Texas, billed as a “Victorian-themed time-traveling exploration of the wonderful and vast world of illusions.”

Vox presents a survey of creepy looking babies in Medieval paintings. Why did they look that way, and why did they morph into cute babies later on? (Link to YouTube).

"Imagination" by PermaGrinFilms from PermaGrinFilms on Vimeo.

Stop motion, pixilation, motion control, and a lot of patience went into this real-world animated fantasy of what was inside the mind of a 1980s and 1990s child. (Link to Vimeo) See the Behind the Scenes here.
Thanks, Hall Train, Cartoon Brew and Roberto Q.
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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Strategies for Evoking Moonlight

"Khasra by Moonlight" is one of the original paintings in the exhibition "The Art of James Gurney"  in Philadelphia. 
Khasra by Moonlight by James Gurney, 12 x 18 inches, oil on board
To evoke the feeling of moonlight, I used the following six strategies, which I based on my own personal memories of observing moonlight, and my study of other artists whose nocturnes I really admire (especially Frederic Remington, Atkinson GrimshawJohn Stobart, and Frank Tenney Johnson):

1. Set up an overall temperature contrast between the orange torchlight and the cool blue-green moonlight.
2. Keep the chroma in the moonlight low--not too intense of a blue-green. Hint of blue in far distance.
3. Put a slight warm halo around the moon and edge-light the adjacent clouds.
4. Keep the key of the painting relatively high.
5. Suppress all detail in the shadows and put some texture and variety in the lights.
6. Introduce a gradual stepping back of value, lightening as it goes back to the far minaret.

Here's the quick (45 minute) maquette that I built for lighting reference. It didn't need to be beautiful at all, just any old blobs of modeling clay were all I needed.

I quickly discovered that I had to move the actual lighting position quite far to the left, much farther to the left than the position of the moon in the painting.

After taking a digital photo of the maquette, in Photoshop I shifted the key toward blue-green, and I desaturated it slightly. The photo shows a lot of reflected light in the shadows, which I largely ignored. I would have played up that reflected light had I wanted to evoke daylight effects, where I might want to amplify the relatively weak reflected light.
"The Art of James Gurney" at the Richard Hess Museum at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia will be on view through November 16, and I will do a public presentation on October 29.
"Khasra by Moonlight" was first published in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara
There's a discussion of architectural maquettes in my print book Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist and an exploration of moonlight in Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Changing Face of Malta

In 1876, Edward Caruana Dingli was born into a family of artists in Valetta, Malta. He studied at the British Academy in Rome and returned to Malta to paint the folk life of his native land. 

Wayside Orange Seller by Edw. Caruana Dingli

One of his paintings that found its way to innumerable postcards and prints shows a happy Maltese girl resting beside the road with a basket of oranges.

Debbie Caruana Dingli

Debbie Caruana Dingli has carried on the family tradition of painting local human stories, but the stories have changed.

As far back as 2008, she decided to include portrayals of migrants and refugees in her gallery exhibitions. "I was keen on the subject from a human perspective. Immigration is a subject where I feel many have lost their sense of humanity due to the antagonism they feel towards this pressing issue...."

She continues, "The other day, my son Bruce mentioned that we spend all our life hearing about how we're supposed to love our neighbour and give them the cloak off our back, and now we're finally being put to the test," she said.