Make Your Landscapes Glow

Here’s another piece I wrote back in 1998 that I think is still worth sharing today.

By David Garrison
March 1998

Create pastels that resonate with natural light by using a variety of contrasts

Natural light makes every subject vibrate with energy. From the warm sunlight silhouetting a stand of trees to the dusky twilight settling across a winter field, something in the way light falls over a natural setting makes the scene come alive. Whenever I see a landscape like this, I feel as if there’s a story being told—a story I want to share with others. That’s when I want to stop and replicate these lighting effects.

Over the years, I’ve learned to capture the glow of light by focusing on the contrast in both values and colors. In general, contrast—an obvious difference between two extremes—tends to create a subtle, visual energy or vibration. Used in specific ways, various types of contrast appear to glow, mimicking the warmth and vitality in any natural setting.

Taking Advantage of Contrast

Like most artists, I begin each painting by establishing the values in my scene. I give the greatest definition to my main subject bu using contrasting strokes of extreme lights and darks on it. In Country Shadow, for example, I wanted the central tree and shed to be the stars, so I used my darkest darks on these elements and my lightest lights in the sky behind them. Concentrating these vibrating values in one area creates a center of interest and ensures that my viewers’ eyes will be repeatedly drawn back to it. This initial step also lays the foundation for the glowing light to come.

When most of the colors are in place, I start looking for ways to emphasize the light. At this point, I bring several different color-contrast techniques into play. For example, if I’ve painted a rainy day scene in primarily cool temperatures, I’ll add on an opposing warm streak to “disrupt” the somber sky and make the clouds glow. Another favorite technique os to break up the light and dark forms by layering strokes and dots of varying colors in the same value family, such as mint green, pale pink and pale yellow. The “cluster” technique is especially visible in the closer cornstalks in Harvest, where I clustered light colors in the cornstalk tops and warm and cool colors in the shadows. I like to use clusters to bring shimmering color to any area but I have to do it sparingly since this effect can be overdone and needs to be subdued.

Typically the last method I use to bring out the glow is applying pure color, which is best seen in unblended strokes of pastel pigment. It is a technique that takes advantage between light and bright. For example, notice how the pure strokes of light blue and dusky orange in Winter Fields make the bright winter snow stand out.

Giving My Surface Some Tooth

I work on either a 200+lb pH neutral board stock or an 80-lb Bainbridge board because I prefer a sturdy surface. In fact, if my pastel painting surface is bigger than 18×24 , I’ll mount it on a lightweight wood panel, for added strength.

To texturize a board so its tooth is suitable for holding pastel dust, I mix up a gritty primer made from two parts heated hide glue (also known as rabbit skin glue), two parts gesso and one part finely ground pumice. I apply two coats of this texturing medium to the front of the board and one to the back to prevent warping. To create a neutral-toned ground for my work, I’ll either add a little watered-down gray acrylic paint to the medium before applying it to my board, or paint a separate layer of gray on the board after I apply the medium.

Capturing Values on Location

With my prepared boards and other materials in tow, I start scouting for a pleasing landscape. Most important in my mind is an unusual interplay of light and objects and a harmonious combination of shapes and planes. If I find something with a strong center of interest that meets these requirements, I’ll start sketching in the basic shapes in black and white, moving things around until I find the best composition. I may notice a fallen tree that I find captivating, for example, so I’ll create and “entrance” to that center of interest by altering the contour of the ground, or adding criss-crossing grasses to draw my eye up to the tree.

To bring more attention to my center of interest, I place the highest value contrasts in the area of my underpainting. Then I start building up many of the other intermediary values in the scene, using lower contrasts and like values to support the main subject. At this stage in the painting, I don’t worry much about which color I’m looking at or using. Instead, I stick to a limited palette of basic colors to map out my value scheme.

I limit my on-site sessions to about an hour and a half. But before returning to the studio, I make sure the proper values have been established—enough to suggest a mood, and then quickly rough in the local and reflected colors. My goal is to re-create the lighting that first attracted me to the setting.

Developing Glowing Color

Back in my studio, I expand the full range of light and color. Guided by my value underpainting and local colors done on location, I develop the colors that will contribute to the feeling of light, time of day and atmospheric conditions. I find muted tones work best for early morning or evening, brighter colors for midday and, of course, cool tones for rainy scenes. Even as more and more layers are built up over the underpainting, I take care to keep the colors consistent with the original value plan.

While adding color, I use my fingers or a swatch of very soft fabric to soften and blend the edges and intermix the colors. Working over the entire surface, I build my scene slowly, incorporating a variety of color and value contrasts as I go. Finally I add a few final strokes of pure color to make my painting sparkle.

Adding the Finishing Touches

When I think I’ve finished a piece, I set it aside, then come back to it with an open mind. If necessary, I make the most obvious corrections first, then the second and so on until all of the problems are eliminated. When I was finishing Evening Bliss, for example, I noticed that the foreground was weak because it was filled with a vague green mist. To make the area stronger, I wiped out the green with a soft cloth and invented that raw hillside. I applied bold stokes of pure soft blues, crimson, violets and warm burnt sienna—all in the same value range—to break up the greens and bring the rocks and hillside to life.

With each final glance, I consider my outcome. Have I told the story I intended to share with my viewers? Does my composition reflect what first attracted me to the scene? Do the colors harmonize and make the viewer want to be in that place? And most importantly, have I used enough contrasts to make the painting resonate with natural light? Only about a third of my pastels meet these standards, but I persevere, motivated by desire to combine accurate observation with careful artistic enhancement into fresh, lively results.

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