One of the issues faced by every artist when working en plein air (on location) is shade. Not so much for ourselves, although that can be important, but for our painting and palette. Finding a balance between too much and too little shade can be hard in ever changing situations. What we hope for is something between those extremes, with a bit of consistency.
While in Montana recently for a workshop (see photo), I observed many students struggling with a variety of lighting situations and painting-umbrella setups. Since I have had my share of struggles with the same issues, I thought it might prove helpful to share a few observations. The perfect scenario is to find a large area of open shade that provides an equal amount of light on the painting surface and palette. By having consistent light on both, selecting the proper pastel stick for the desired task, and having it look the same on the painting surface, will become easier. What needs to be avoided when looking for this situation is the “cave effect”—too little light, or the “blast”—too much. If there is too little light, the painting will become overly light and bright. Too much produces a dark dull finished painting. Finding that balance can be a bit tricky.
It is best to position yourself so that there is open space behind you with shade being provided from either side. If you have to work in an exposed setting, it is advisable to turn your painting surface so that it is not receiving full sunlight. Take time to figure out in which direction the sun is traveling. Then turn your easel so that the direct sunlight won’t creep onto the painting as time goes by. These exposed situations often leave our pastel palette in full or dappled sunlight. This is when an umbrella setup can become invaluable, providing a soft cast shadow over the palette. The other option is to work in full sunlight, placing both the painting surface and palette in direct light. Remember that it is very easy to make bad value/hue choices in this situation. One tip that has always proved helpful is to frequently take the painting down from the easel and analysis it under different lighting. This scrutiny may save hours of misguided value and color choices.
Overcoming the abundance or scarcity of the lighting situation can take years to master. Even the best of us make poor choices from time to time and have to deal with the consequences. Finding a painting umbrella setup that works for your individual needs is not always easy. Just like the perfect easel or palette box, we are always looking for the most compact, sturdy, and affordable model available. In the next blog I will share a few observations about the ones with which I have a history.