The sun is beaming and you see a tree all lit up. Question: “How to paint sunshine?”
Most painters are drawn to the light, whether it is created by Mother Nature or interior light. It’s ethereal and a challenge to capture in paint. The problem we have to solve is trying to create this sensation while using human-made products. And, in essence, we are trying to paint air with solid materials.
Recently, I spent a week in the Colorado Rockies basking in the sun and in awe of its magic while gazing upon the changing aspen leaves. It’s truly glorious to hike, sit or stand while marveling the yellow light created when the sun bounces off of those golden aspen leaves. It’s captivating especially when there is a light breeze. Notice in the white on the leaves in the photo on the right.
During this same week, I happened upon a week long plein air event that included over 30 artists painting in the area. This culminated in a show at the Steamboat Museum of Art in Steamboat Springs, CO. This was my first time attending such an event and it was exciting and fascinating to peruse over 100 paintings.
Much to my dismay, I was surprised to see that few paintings adequately, in my humble opinion, and effectively displayed how to paint sunshine.
What is the Key to “How to Paint Sunshine?”
Years ago, I was taught that the key to making yellow shine is to have some white right next to the yellow. In photography and 3D graphics, it’s called a specular highlight.
Let me try to show some examples. In this little painting chart below, I painted two gradations of yellows within a blue box. In the top window, I used three different yellows, gradating from deep orange yellow, to yellow to green yellow and then back to yellow and a deep orange yellow. In the bottom window, I did the same thing but added a lot of white to the green yellow in the middle. Notice how this creates a greater glow. In this next quick exercise, I painted some yellow aspen trees. Here I made sure that I added white (watercolorists need to leave white paper) immediately adjacent to the yellow where I wanted it to sparkle more. Notice, even in this simple example, how your eye goes to where the white and yellow meet.
Granted, I am not known for my landscape painting, but I thought I would go the next step and show another example of how to paint sunshine. See how those three aspen trees (oops! they are all the same size, which isn’t good design. LOL!) aspen light up a bit like light bulbs. It is because of the white. Painting with just yellows or even a variety of yellows, does not accomplish the same effect.Where else do I use this principle? Sometimes in my abstract paintings I like to have a spot or two that glow like sunshine. Here is my 20″x 20″abstract painting “Let the Caged Bird Sing.” Notice the use of white and yellow toward the lower left quadrant of the painting. It brings attention to the hidden bird.Another example is in this 24″ x 24″ abstract “Reaching in Rhythm.” Again I applied a bit of white next to my yellow-green to attract the viewer’s eye and to create a glow.
Take some time to study paintings that appear to glow. Notice the use of white and yellow, or at least a yellow with a lot of white mixed in it and/or the use of leaving white in the case of watercolor paintings.
Does this help answer the question of how to paint sunshine? Give it a try and let me know your results. Since the sun is lower in our sky in the northern hemisphere, it is a good time of the year to notice sunlight and her dramatic contrasts.
If you found this post interesting, please forward it onto other artists. Feel free to share using the buttons below.
Gratefully and colorfully yours,