Painting Daylight Landscapes: Demo

Create a specific value scale for daytime scenes.

For a daytime scene, such as High Noon, Low Tide (above; pastel, 12×18), I use a compressed value scale weighted to the middle (we rarely see true darks in daytime).

When painting landscapes, especially en plein air, I do two things before I touch brush to canvas:

  1. I visualize the scene as just a few large value masses.
  2. I try to reduce the number of values to no more than four: a dark, a middark, a midlight and a light.

Imagine taking a 10-step value scale and compressing it into four steps. I’m approaching my discussion of these topics from the standpoint of oil painting, but most of the theory can be applied to pastel and other opaque media.

When you start to paint, mix your lightest mixture first and make sure that all your other mixtures sit far enough away on the scale from that light-value mixture to create a real contrast. Any highlights, such as sunlight reflecting off waves or rim lighting, should be treated this way. When painting bright daytime light, I find that having premixed value swatches on my palette to refer to when I mix colors to be especially valuable.

As with the night scenes, smart use of complements and near-complements goes a long way toward creating an illusion of brilliance. A color wheel can help you find complement pairs. See the step-by-step exercise (below) for a demonstration of painting bright daylight.

See the demonstration below for painting a daylight scene.
I abstracted the scene below quite a bit to show more clearly the four values. I used violets and greens for the darks; for the lights I used oranges and yellow. Yellow and violet are complements; orange and green are near-complements. All paints are Gamblin Artists Colors.

A value scale weighted toward the middle works best for depicting bright daytime light.

I mixed each of my four values before starting to paint, beginning with the lightest. The light is titanium-zinc white, cadmium yellow light and phthalo blue. The midlight is white, cadmium yellow light and cadmium red light. The middark is phthalo blue, cadmium yellow light and cadmium red light. The dark is ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson and cadmium red light.

For my first paint application, I used the dark mixture (ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson and cadmium red light).

Next I added the middark mixture (phthalo blue, cadmium yellow light and cadmium red light).

Then came the midlight mixture (white, cadmium yellow light and cadmium red light), followed by the light mixture (titanium-zinc white, cadmium yellow light and phthalo blue).

Michael Chesley Johnson is a longtime contributor to The Artist’s Magazine and the author of Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil & Pastel. He teaches plein air workshops in both oil and pastel throughout North America. Visit


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