Monday, August 2, 2010

Fleeting Light

Here’s another Italian scene painted on site near the Arno river in Florence. The above 9x12 painting “Under the Arch” was completed in a little over an hour on the second day that I arrived. I wanted to get the juices flowing after the long flight before I began my week of teaching, so I managed to finish this one just before the bus picked us up for our workshop.

I had every intention of doing a painting of bridges and water on the Arno, but when I didn’t find something inspiring, I spotted this view with the tiny sliver of light piercing the shadowed wall. The street and mini archway just spoke of Florence and since time was of the essence, I set up and got busy. To start, my most important element was to capture the shadow value of the building on the right. After a quick sketch of the basic forms, I began concentrating on mixing that tricky green/gold color. Of course, the minute I put the first few strokes down, sunlight started flooding the scene and my wonderful light sliver was lost instantly. I still wanted to continue and thought I’d just remember what it looked like and pressed on. I painted in all of the right side shadow tones and window suggestions, then moved to the archway. In actuality, it was the same color as the building on the right, but I changed the shade slightly, so it wouldn’t appear flat. Next I brushed on the red tones of the left side building, and again, this was much lighter due to the reflected light. When I experimented with establishing the correct tone, it drew too much attention to an unimportant area, so I dropped the value down to the same level as the other shadows and that created a better harmony. I moved to the distant building next, and pushed it’s value lighter to achieve a bit more distance in the scene. I also gave it a pink hue to differentiate it from the other structures. Since the building was quite tall in reality, I cropped it down to allow for that small rectangle of sky which I felt created a better design. The street was painted in after that and people were added to give it life. I kept them minimized and in shadow so they would not take away from the lit areas which were my focus. Lastly, I painted in all the sunlit areas. The value was there for me, but I had to work from memory of the actual light shape, since the whole right-hand building was now in full light. With some last minute flourishes here and there, my final paint stroke was the sliver of yellow light coming down in the center. Time was now up and I threw my gear together and was off to the bus.

I knew that the painting was missing something, since so much of the light shapes were created from memory but couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t until I returned home and saw my photo of the scene that I figured out what was wrong. I had painted the side of the building to the right of the archway roof completely in shadow, when in reality there was tons of reflected light bouncing off the red roof. I corrected my mistake, adding in the rectangle of light above the thin sliver and suddenly it all came together.

Painting en plein air always has it’s advantages, but a little photo help here and there never hurts! Enjoy.


  1. Just great. And love that you shared the steps.

  2. The reflected light rectangle makes all the difference, I remember what it looked like before you added it. Thanks for pointing out the blue sky too, that was a great decision!

  3. I enjoyed reading about your decisions of what to paint first, why you changed the hue and also how you worked to paint from memory once the shadow pattern changed.

  4. Greg, besides being a fabulous painter, you're a natural teacher. You're very generous to put so much into explaining the process. I'm always learning something from you. Thanks so much.

  5. You cannot go wrong with your influence. It's right there in front of you.