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Tuesday, 9 February 2010


Shadows help give form to whatever we paint. After all, they tell the story of where the light is coming from. A painter will therefore paint a tree trunk with a light side as well as a dark side, as shown in the upper right of this photograph. (A) That type of shadow is a form shadow, the shadow that is part of the form.
As the photograph shows however, there are even better ways to use shadows. Not only can you tell the viewer where the light is coming from, but in addition, you can show the roundness of the trunk with the help of cast shadows. Those are the shadows cast by an object and falling onto the trunk. Cast shadows are real form describers because they take on the form on which they are cast.
The middle trunk for instance shows some wonderful cast shadows, caused by higher branches. Those cast shadows wrap themselves around that trunk and really give a feeling of the roundness of it. (B) In the traditional, yellow "happy face", the mouth curves upward. With trees on the other hand, the shadow curves are downward as is clearly shown here. (B & D) Therefore, on my workshops, I point out that trees have "sad-faced shadows". To paint those shadows with an upward curve is to defy a natural occurrence and make a typical beginners mistake.
At certain parts of the day, some cast shadows are NOT good form describers. For example, look at the left trunk with the long, vertical cast shadow which simply copies that trunk's outline (C). In a situation like that, it is best to ignore that shadow shape and make it curve over the trunk instead. Perhaps fifteen minutes later it may actually do that anyway. In there lies the danger of copying a photograph verbatim.
Another thing I would like to point out here is the fact that near its cause, the cast shadow is darker and harder edged. Witness the hard edged, curved shadow in the upper part of the middle trunk. (B) The branch which caused that shadow is very near. The farther removed from its cause, the shadow becomes lighter in value and softer edged, as seen on the more delicate curves, on the left and right trunks. (D) Those cast shadows were caused by distant branches.
This photo was taken on my daily walk along the ocean. Remember, you won't always be able to paint, but you can always observe Mother Nature. She is a great teacher.


Increasing the Illusion of Depth
In "The Watercolor Fix-it Book", you'll find nine different ways to increase the illusion of depth in your landscape without having to resort to those dreaded linear perspective rules. Yet, I'm sorry to say that a tenth way, the contour outline method was left out. Therefore, you may wish to print this tip and add it to chapter eight in your book.
To illustrate this method, imagine yourself on a hillside such as shown in . With your finger, point to the foliage contour of the nearest tree and follow that edge, as in line "A". Next, point to and follow the contour outline of a stand of trees a bit further away, as in line "B". Then follow the outline of a distant hill as in line "C" and do the same with the more distant ridges, as in lines "D" and "E". Notice how your finger motion as well as the linear quality in the diagram becomes less active the further the contours recede into the distance. The fact to remember: keep your active lines up front and slow the linear quality down in the distance.

This tip is even applicable when painting something as close as a sidewalk. In a section of the Fernandina Beach poster shown above, you can see that the near edge of the sidewalk is much more active than the far edge.

And you'll see this same phenomenon when pointing to and following the outline of a pond, as shown in the sketch above. See it applied in the print of the "Hidden Pond" painting.
Of course, as with anything, there are exceptions. Yet it is good to know this tenth method of increasing the illusion of depth. With ten ways to increase depth in your landscapes, who needs linear perspective? Have fun!


The focal point building block: "..keep looking at the center of interest."

Prompted by a recent question about how to handle a background, I can't give specifics, because the subject in front of you should give you that advice. It is a case of learning to really look and observe what the subject tells you. Remember, nature is your best teacher. Therefore, when you set up your still life, take some time to compose it well and delete or cover up a confusing background. Ever wondered why you see so much drapery in background areas?
Keep in mind who is the "star" of your painting. What was the reason why you painted that subject in the first place? A background should always remain that and never steal the limelight away from your star area. So too much emphasis on the background, too much fussing in or with the background, will bring that area to the foreground and that's exactly what you want to avoid.
In general, consider treating background areas with cooler, more muted colors. Edges should be softer, more out of focus and details should only be hinted at. Guess what? All this applies to the landscape as well. The curtains of atmosphere lighten, cool, neutralize and soften all that is seen in the distance. For an extreme example, just observe what fog does to the landscape. Therefore, you should stay away from vivid reds or heavy browns in the distance. Again, generally speaking, since there are no absolutes in art. The words "always" and "never" do not exist.
Good advice:
While painting the center of interest, look at the center of interest. While painting everything else, KEEP LOOKING AT THE CENTER OF INTEREST. To test this, stand in front of a mirror, extend your hand to the side and look at your face. It is in sharp focus, while you're really only aware of your hand. Now shift your view to your hand and it becomes in focus while your face is blurred.
Observe our focal point building block. Your attention is automatically directed to the black dot. The arrows at that point, have a strong, black-white value difference. They are in focus, while when they near the edge of the block, they seem to blend more into the background, because the value difference between the arrow and the background becomes less pronounced.
Good luck with painting those backgrounds and keep the questions coming

I often hear students referring to reflections as shadows. I don't know why. These are obviously two distinctly different things, although both can be observed, depending on the quality and depth of the water. Shadows are most often observed if the water is either full of sediment, or very shallow. In the latter case, assuming the stream is very clear, you'll actually look through the water, to see the shadow falling over the bottom of the stream bed. To attempt to paint both shadows and reflections on the water is asking for a major headache, however. I've tried it.
Reflections basically reflect the values and colors above the water and, at the water level, duplicate these values and colors. This is assuming we are looking at motionless water. It is basically a mirror. Waves, on the other hand, should be thought of as strips of broken mirrors, placed at slight angles. One angle will reflect the sky, while the other angle will reflect what is above the water level. You may have heard of the formula "The angle of reflection is equal to the angle of incidence." I tried to demonstrate this here with the three pilings and their reflections.
All these formulas get much too technical for most of us. Still, it is good to know the reasons behind some of this and quietly observe nature with a keen eye. In actuality, most painters just place reflections where they need them to tell the visual story of water. Reflections tell that story best. In the case of small puddles, I suggest placing them strategically right below where strong value alternations take place. For instance, place them right below where a house turns from sunlight into shade.
Wet streets are also great fun to paint, because they give you the opportunity to unify and balance colors throughout the scene. Is there any wonder why film makers often feature them? Have fun observing and painting reflections. For examples, look at my Coastal Maine poster as well as the Cozy Harbor and Hidden Pond prints. And if you have any reflection questions, send me an e-mail.

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