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