Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun

How to paint in direct sun without your painting getting too dark.
Painting in the direct sun at Fort Williams. Not only did I need gallons of water, but I have the most ridiculous tan. (Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand)
Yesterday, Cat Popesaw the above photo and asked me, “How do you work in the sun and not make your values too dark to compensate?” This is a common-enough problem. Experience has taught me how to compensate, but I used to do it too.
Yes, I could have chosen a shaded location from which to paint, but not at the edge of a cliff looking down into the water. I wanted that view and was willing to broil to catch it.
I have an excellent field umbrella: the EasyL by Artwork Essentials. However, the onshore wind in Maine often sends it flying. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even bother. I wouldn’t have used an umbrella in the above situation anyway, because my canvas was already the size of a kite.
Painting with Brad Marshall along Long Island Sound, where the sea breezes are light enough to permit an umbrella. (Photo courtesy of Rye Art Center)
I started this painting with the early morning light hitting from the side. By the time the light was overhead, I had the value structure laid out. That’s important because a raking side light isn’t as strong as direct overhead light.
My red canvas is part of the solution. I aim for a value-neutral, high-chroma color. Not only is a very light canvas a liar when it comes to value, it causes eye strain.
Painting on a pale or white canvas makes you lay down those first strokes too dark. To understand why, we need to go back to the master of color mixing, Josef Albers. Albers understood that the same optics rules that played tricks in color also did so in monochrome. He did many greyscale exercises along with his more famous color work.
We perceive the dark square differently in a field of red than in a field of white.
To apply his insights to field painting in bright light, a dark square in an expanse of white reads differently than the same square in a field of mid-value color. That’s why white space is such an important concept in graphic design. In painting, we subconsciously use that white space as part of our design, and when it goes away, we’re left with something that’s dark and drab. It’s worse when the white board is shimmering in the sun. Our pupils contract terribly, altering our perception of color and light.
I mix my colors before I start painting. I have the darkest dark and lightest light set out before I put a stroke on the canvas. This limits my value range and defines my color temperature intellectually, rather than intuitively. I block in my large shapes, shooting for an average hue and value for each large mass. Then I stand back and look at the painting critically, to see if the composition laces together. If it doesn’t, back to the proverbial drawing board.
Historic Fort George, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted without an umbrella, because I didn’t want to hike the Fort Point Trail carrying extra gear.
It helps to paint in the sky last. The tendency is to paint the sky too dark. This pulls the light level of the whole painting down to match.
I complicate matters by painting in my sunglasses. This isn’t a problem as long as I remove them and check my painting from time to time. The polarizing lenses cut the glare from both the water and the paint, so it’s not really that difficult to match colors accurately. And if the sea is a little bluer than in life, is that really so bad?