Creating Mood

A chance photograph captured the quiet mood of a rainy late-night street scene and became the inspiration for artist Ann Nihal’s painting, Rainglow, Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie (watercolor, 7×12). The deserted sidewalks, a single parked car and shimmering puddles of reflected light from shops long since closed down add to the tranquil feeling of the piece. The viewer is made to feel curious about those warmly lit rooms. Is that a cozy cafe or an art gallery, perhaps? The overall feeling is one of peace and intimacy that only a soft rain shower can create.

Areas to Work On
As any artist knows who’s tried it, the mood of a night scene is a challenging subject. In Rainglow, Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie, Nihal has successfully shown us the important role of value contrasts to achieve this effect. However, the composition of the painting is divided into thirds with the lightest value evenly distributed throughout the middle third of the design. The result is a work where there’s no one area with clear visual importance. Since she wants to convey a specific visual mood—a warm, rainy night—Nihal must combine a mixture of values, abstract shapes, symbols, subject matter and color in a strong composition. When all these elements are balanced, Nihal can be reasonably sure of creating the effect she’s after.

Art Principles At Work
Using values for emphasis. Every painting strives to generate some sort of mood; value in the composition plays a powerful role in evoking emotion. The light and dark of things is the basis of what we see. Value is simply the artistic term. High value contrast attracts our attention and adds drama to a painting. By planning this value change in a specific area and keeping it subdued elsewhere, the artist can be sure where the viewer’s eye will be directed first.

Artists typically don’t have any trouble discerning values when dealing with black, white and gray. The problems often come when the switch is made to color. Suddenly, all the artist sees is a gorgeous electric blue or sizzling hot red instead of the darkness of that blue next to the lightness of the red. It’s difficult to see the value pattern created by the value relationships of color, which is brought home when you look at the black-and-white version of Nihal’s painting on page 22. Notice that all the colors used–red, blue, green, turquoise, yellow, orange and violet–now appear as the same consistent light value. The shapes–two dark bands and one light band–become monotonous because of their sameness. There’s little variety within these shapes. Nihal could make her painting stronger by adjusting the light areas and shadowed areas to create her own visual language.

Choosing a focal point. As artists, we strive to catch the viewer’s attention and hold it as long as possible. One way to do this is to have a center of interest or focal point that jumps out at the viewer and starts the journey through the painting. A painting can have one focal point or several, with one of the group having slightly more importance. A note of caution: Too many focal points, all with equal emphasis, run the risk of confusing the viewer who may not know where to look first. But it’s also possible to have no focal point and still have a successful design, as long as the painting is well-balanced in every other aspect.

There are many ways to emphasize the focal point. Isolating a shape or object is one obvious way. Or, when all the elements in the painting point to one thing, it then becomes the focal point. Just as in life, when we see a group of people all looking up, it’s impossible to not look there as well. So, too, if all the shapes are round and only one is square, naturally the square is where we start. Similarly, if all is blue except for that one red dot, we look there, and so on.

The single parked car in Nihal’s painting is a different shape than all the rest. It would make a strong focal point if it were moved forward—just off center—and silhouetted against the lit windows. This would both isolate and emphasize the car and draw our attention to it first.

Making minor changes. Small adjustments to the design and value pattern can make the difference between a great painting and an ordinary one. Taking the time to make small thumbnail sketches with three or four values and very simple shapes can help you figure out your value patterns and save you the frustrating reworking later on. And if you’re using photographs for reference, keep in mind that you’ll need to recompose the scene—eliminating, adding or moving objects, or whatever it takes to get the job done.

Let’s now take a closer look at Rainglow, Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie to specifically hone in on ways to strengthen it.

  • Raise or lower the band of light so it doesn’t cut across the very center of the painting. Vary the size of the shapes within this bright area to create more interest.
  • Move the car forward and frame it with the show windows. Use the lightest value in this area only. This will highlight the car as the focal point.
  • Tone down the remaining lights with a pale wash to offset the major focal point: the car.
  • Keep all the warm colors toward the center and the car, using cooler shades toward the edges. This warmth will emphasize the focal point.
  • Lighten the reflection on the street to visually and vertically “stop” the eye from racing off the page.
  • Invent more lit signage to create a vertical stop. This horizontal composition needs balance vertically. By emphasizing the sign above and reflection below, you’ll keep the viewer’s eye from flying out of the painting. Any shapes should be pointed in toward the center of the painting, not out.

Lessons Learned
Nihal is a competent artist willing to take risks and extend herself to difficult images. Creating mood with values and enhancing the focal point are simply suggestions and some reminders of the principles of design. It’s good to be aware of the “rules,” but when all is said and done, forget the rules and technique and just paint! Use anything and everything at your disposal. Paint intuitively, freely and with passion. There’s nothing you put down that can’t be changed. Step back and critique your work with a cold eye. Then jump in, fix it and paint some more. This continuous circle of do, look, think and do again will help you to become a better painter.

About the Artist
Ann Nihal of Fishkill, New York, has been making art for seven years. “What keeps me interested is the challenge of trying to translate a vision to a piece of paper,” she says. “I continue because the joy of every step in creating a piece of art is fulfilling.”

Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the author of The Painter’s Handbook (Watson-Guptill Publications).

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