The Last Light of Day This is an unusual winter composition, perhaps. The strength of this painting is in the color and value structure, both of which I changed to enhance the drama I envisioned in this ordinary scene. The textural contrasts between the water and forest also play a big role here.
If I were to design a curriculum for the aspiring painter, “Understanding Light” would be the first course of study, before color theory and well before any actual painting classes. This was the way of the old European academic courses, but somewhere along the line, the study of light itself got lost at many American art schools. My own education in art schools in the early ’70s paid scant attention to this most important of subjects. I had no real education in how light worked until I took a black-and-white photography class. That began my lifelong journey of studying the sun and moon as they move around the seasons, and trying to put those impressions down on canvas and paper. There was a lot I needed to learn.
There is no such thing as “bad light.” Without light, there is only darkness. Not very inspiring. I have always been aware that light can be an emotional experience. Anyone sensitive to daylight knows this when clouds suddenly move in and the mood seems to darken.
Light is always changing hour to hour in temperature, color, intensity, and direction. Monet heroically tried to capture this in his haystack paintings. They are an artistic monument to light in all its particulars and the act of Plein air painting, which brings me round to painting outdoors and my education in light. It wasn’t until I began painting outside in the early 1970s that I began to understand that I had to educate my eyes to see light in the world. Theories are not enough. I had to grow a bigger visual cortex. That just takes time and intense focus. Fast forward 40 years later, and I’m still doing the same thing, but with a difference. With thousands of paintings under my brush, painting fundamentals are largely subconscious now. I focus on the feeling and how I can use those skills to elevate my subject up to a higher aesthetic level. Let me show you what I mean by taking a yearlong tour through our remarkable local landscape here in northeastern Kansas.
Because I have been painting these 140 acres of woods and ponds for 27 years now, I have had the privilege of getting to know most of it intimately in all its moods and seasons. I know when to be in particular places at particular moments to catch a special quality of light and architecture of the land. This is an incredibly useful advantage for painting, where we often have to use precious time to scout these things in advance.
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