Sunlight is powerful. Attempting to portray it on pastel paper is a challenge for even the most seasoned painter. We arrange shapes of value and color throughout our landscape compositions attempting to portray what we see. As we scan the scene, we associate light and dark to individual areas but often miss the context in which they reside. This produces a fractured scene that lacks a sense of sunlight.
A good way of dealing with this dilemma is to employ an old system: Separate areas receiving sunlight from those that don’t. Designating these abstract areas and associating a controlled value scale to each can create a representation of light and dark within each while retaining the perception of sunlight.
To do this exercise, begin by separating your composition into two distinct masses: areas receiving sunlight and those that don’t (see sketch above). Don’t be seduced by local color and the appearance of lighter and darker areas within these masses. That designation will come later. Next, associate a value scale to each. While this can be adjusted for individual scenes, it’s best to start simply by using a value scale of 0 to 10 (0 represents black and 10 pure white). Associate values 0–5 to the shaded areas and 5–10 to the sunlit areas.
Finally, block in the areas with local color, staying true to the associated value scale: nothing above value 5 in the shade and nothing lower than 5 in the sunlight. In this exercise, value 5 will represent both light and dark, depending on the area. Accents can be added as the sketch develops. Once blocked in, you’ll see the effect (see completed rough pastel sketch at left).
By forcing yourself to do this exercise a couple of times, you’ll see the effect of sunlight and have a better grasp of how to portray it within your paintings. It’s helpful to be reminded that paintings are illusions. They’re not skies, mountains, trees and fields. They’re pigments reflecting light back to another set of eyes. You are the master of that illusion. This exercise can make the trick easier.