Art theory Landscape Oil Painting Outdoors/Landscape Painting Plein Air

Painting in the Dark for More Colorful Paintings

Sibley Park View from Visitors Center, Oil on panel, 12x9
Sibley Volcanic Park: View from Visitors Center, Oil on panel, 12x9"

OK, it wasn’t really in the dark, but I was in deep shade and could barely tell what colors I was mixing. Yesterday I went to a non-painting event in 105 degree heat and blinding sun and came home with a migraine. I just couldn’t take another day in the sun today but wanted to join my Sunday plein air group. I set up in the shade of the visitor center at Sibley Volcanic Regional Park in Oakland where we were going meet for our group critique at 2:00.

Bicyclists and hikers stopped by all afternoon to eat lunch in the shade, get water, or use the restrooms. Two hardcore women cyclists spent their entire lunch discussing in great detail their recent fruit purchases. Another woman cyclist in full cycling gear told her cycling buddy that her ex-husband married her ex-best friend. Then she dated that woman’s ex-husband. But when her ex-husband and ex-best friend divorced, she and former best friend fell in love and recently got married thanks to California’s same sex marriage law. They rode off before I could find out if the ex-husbands fell in love with each other too.

The rest of my plein air group painted the amazing vistas along the roadside on Skyline Drive and Grizzly Peak Boulevards but they had to put up with the heat and direct sun. I was perfectly happy with this lesser vista and the lovely shade.

Painting in the dark
Painting in the dark

I discovered an interesting phenomenon. When I paint in the bright sun my colors look really nice and bright, but once out of the sun, the painting looks duller and dark. Just the opposite is true when painting in the shade. The colors look much dull and monochromatic in the shade (see above). But in the light they’re bright and colorful. That also seems to happen when I wear gray tinted sunglasses.

In the same way that squinting (reducing the light coming into your eyes) removes the color from the scene, allowing you to see values better, painting in the shade or wearing dark glasses reduces the perceived intensity or saturation of the colors you’re mixing. That in turn tricks you into mixing more brilliant, saturated colors. Or at least that’s what happened to me today. I was pleasantly surprised each time I carried my painting out into the sun to see what it really looked like.

Me enjoying the shade at Sibley

8 replies on “Painting in the Dark for More Colorful Paintings”

You made the lesser vista look spectacular – what an array of greens you found – don’t know if it was painting in the shade that did it, but you captured a wonderful shimmering light. (How interesting to have a real-life soap opera related while you paint!)


Ah! So that’s what you look like! 😀

You’re getting great depth in your plein air paintings these days, beautiful! Also, I agree with CathyG (and you), you’ve got some bright, cheery colors in your rendition. Especially as I write this comment and see your Flickr photo of the scene and your painting as a comparison.

I like your stuff!


Beautiful, rich colors. Great explanation too, of the light and color theory. Thanks for that, and yay! how nice to have photos of you. Is that one of the Soltek easels? It looks wonderful.


Visceral. The viewer is sucked right out of the foreground and shot into the distance.

(I have been flying all day, from the banks of the Mississippi to the banks of the Pacific with my face pressed to the plane window.)


Hey, nice to meet you ‘face to face’…..well, you can’t see my face. I paint ‘in the dark’ just because it’s too darn hot to be out in the sun and my eyes just can’t take that kind of light. I like this painting in the dark approach and I really like the painting!


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