Monday Morning Art School: contre-jour

Contre-jour is a great effect for figure and landscape painting, but you can practice it in still life.

Tête-à-tête, by Carol L. Douglas, long since gone to its new home.

Contre-jour is French for ‘against daylight’ and it simply means a back-lit subject. The viewer is looking towards the light. When the sun is low, contre-jour results in silhouetting, as with a sunset. However, when the light source is high but still behind the subject, contre-jour can create wonderful rim lighting with prismatic color effects. Contra-jour minimizes details, increases contrast, and emphasizes simple shapes. It casts shadows forward, and these shadows are often as interesting as the subject itself.

The human eye has a much better response to wide ranges in lighting than does a camera lens. Our eyes adjust constantly to shifts in lighting, and our brains interpret this data on the fly. If, say, we’re in Rosslyn Chapel attempting to spy out the Green Man in the murky light above our heads, we have no trouble also seeing the well-lighted docent who’s giving the tour. It’s only in extreme lighting shifts that the eye and brain need time to catch up.

Sunset sail, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art. A sunset is an extreme example of contre-jour painting.

A camera (at least to date) hasn’t got this flexibility. Photos tend to be too dark in the dark passages or too light in the light passages. That’s not just an aesthetic problem; they simply don’t record data in those places, so there’s no fixing the problem in Photoshop.

That’s why it’s important to practice contre-jour in real life, not from photos. A photograph sets the relative light levels, and you’ll have a hard time overriding what you see, even if you’ve taken multiple exposures.

La repasseuse à contre-jour, 1874-1878, Edgar Degas, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, that same inflexibility sometimes makes cameras better for recording images in silhouette, like sunsets. The camera doesn’t try to insert information that isn’t there. The most common error in painting sunsets is putting color in the foreground. That’s the brain telling the artist, “trees are green,” when all the visual evidence is to the contrary.

Contre-jour is a wonderful technique in figure painting, as it creates an aura of privacy and anonymity. I’ve included one example by Edgar Degas, but he used it repeatedly, creating a sense of dignity for his laborers, ballerinas, and bathing women. Contre-jour is also very effective in landscape painting, but if you can’t get out to paint en plein air right now, practice it with still life.

To paint contre-jour effectively, one must carefully attend to color. Take the time to check values and record them in the form of a sketch, because contra-jour lighting effects change more quickly than spotlighted scenes. That’s particularly true in the structure, shape, and density of shadows.

Belfast harbor, 14×18, Carol L. Douglas, $1275 unframed.

Value is obviously important, but so too are the subtle shifts in hue and chroma that tell you an object is in shadow. Except for extreme silhouette, backlit subjects are never uniformly dark. They catch rim light and reflected light.

Almost all scenes will include some translucent or transparent objects like flowers, glassware, and fabric. These let light through, and when placed in front of a dark background, they stand out. Your contra-jour still life can look very different in daylight than it does at night, so it might take some adjusting.

Don’t underestimate the power of shadows; they’re often the best part of a contra-jour scene. They can transform the often-neglected bottom of your canvas from predictable to riotous. For example, try shining a light through a vase of flowers and note the lovely shadows dancing across your table.

Sunset at Olana

Clouds over the Hudson, by little ol’ me. $795, framed.

A select group of New York plein air painters—my pals—have been in the Catskills painting this week. On Wednesday, Nancy Woogen and Johanne Morin saw a bear swimming in a lake, a rainbow, and a painted turtle laying eggs. I saw only one of those things (the turtle) and was awed by it; they must have been gobsmacked.

Sunset over the Hudson, by little ol’ me. $795, framed.
Last night, I was leaving the grounds of Frederic Church’s Olana at dusk, having painted the sunset. I was completely alone. I sometimes have an intuition that there is wildlife close by. I slowly coasted the lanes out of the historic site, hoping to glimpse a bear. No dice so I sped up to 55 MPH as I entered the road—only to narrowly miss a bounding doe.
To amuse myself, I attempted to paint just like Jamie Williams Grossman. That really didn’t work so well; we’re too different, but it was a fun experiment and I think I might show my students how to start indirectly like she does.Here are our easels, side by side.
We’ve been surrounded by crazy numbers of tourists as we’ve painted this week. Nothing unusual in that for me, except that it usually happens on the Maine coast, not in an untamed wilderness. Plein air painters have a different relationship with nature than most visitors. Tourists hike up trails, they linger on sunlit rocks, and then they head down to their cars to drive to the next vista. Nothing wrong with that—I love hiking myself. But it is unlikely that you will come face-to-face with nature that way.

Painting at Olana! Oh, my!
Meanwhile, we’re in our corner, struggling with our paint. Most of the time, that’s an introspective thing, and we’re concentrating on the canvas. But because we are essentially still, and we’re there for a long time, the woodland has a tendency to sneak up on us. Still, at the end of the day we get in our cars and drive away, the windshield separating us from the wilderness as it does everyone else.
This week’s painting has been made more difficult by heavy pollen after this cold winter. My asthma, which has been well-controlled for years, is rampaging. Yesterday, I capitulated and called a doctor, and not a moment too soon.  I’m wheezing like an ancient church organ.
Still, I have allies—a group of tremendous friends who helped move my pack today. I couldn’t have done it without them.

There are still a few openings in my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available 

When good painting locations go bad

Carol’s set up of Durand Lake. Nice mackerel sky, heralding rain (correctly, as it turns out).

 I’ve painted at Durand-Eastman Park for years. I’ve painted on the beach, along Zoo Road, and most often on the embankment facing Durand and Eastman Lakes. These are steep-sided glacial fingerlings reaching back from the shore of Lake Ontario, separated from their mother lake by a narrow strip of land. 
This location is handicapped-accessible. It has picnic tables. It has parking. It had a Porta-Potty, and it’s always several degrees cooler than inland.
Speaking of skies, this was what we had at sunset. Not all that paintable, but interesting for having that fine spun cotton below the altocumulus layer. That Lake Ontario skyline is inexorable, however, and it is matched by an equally flat shoreline. If the clouds don’t cooperate, you have a whole lot of nothing.
With a little manipulation, one could create the illusion* of the stillness of the Adirondacks. Durand Lake seems to disappear through a twisting inlet that gives the impression of limitless possibility. A tree trunk curves fetchingly over the inlet and the sun would often etch that line in lovely contrast to the still, golden water below.
So when Carol Thiel and I were kicking around ideas for painting spots, it seemed like a reasonable option for a particularly gorgeous summer evening: limpid, luminous, neither hot nor cool, with ever-changing clouds. It held the promise of a great sunset.
That thud-thud-thud is the sound of jet-skies.
But what the heck happened to my reliable view? The tree that had once dangled fetchingly over the inlet was obscured by new growth. The forms of the lake-shore were overrun with undergrowth, monotonously green in color. The duckweed that usually provides a golden-chartreuse foil was in extremely short supply.
Carol painted it, and did a credible job of finding interest in the scene. Virginia and Lyn turned their backs on it and painted Lake Ontario instead. Now, there’s a thankless painting! The person who can find a composition on the Rochester shore of Lake Ontario—outside the harbors themselves—that’s anything other than a series of horizontal bands punctuated by scrubby trees wins a prize: a freeze-pop in your choice of colors.
One thing we are never in short supply of here in Rochester is trees, so Catherine was wise to default to drawing them. (This park is home to Slavin Arboretum, which is an awfully interesting tree collection.)
And, if you can believe it, they took away the Porta-Potty.  And as sunset moved in, so did a dense, obscuring cloud cover. I really should complain to the city.

“We haven’t come across a Lock 32 this year,” said Catherine, by which she meant that we hadn’t found a painting location that mesmerized us. It must be easily accessible from the city, it must be handicapped-accessible, it must have a bathroom, and it must be interesting. I hate to reprise hits from the past, so I ask my Rochester friends: do you have any brilliant ideas?   
*Durand-Eastman is a particularly noisy park. The traffic on Lakeshore Drive is usually drowned out by the ever-present jet-skis rumbling along the lake. But paintings don’t have soundtracks, thankfully.

Join us in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!