Monday Morning Art School: paint like a fauve

When the light is bad, give yourself a jolt of color.
Hardwood, by Carol L. Douglas, 6X8, oil on canvasboard 
Driving from Boston to Philadelphia, the sky was full of light, fleecy cirrus clouds. Bobbi Heathand I watched them happily. We were due to start painting at Plein Air Brandywine Valleyat 3:30 in the afternoon. While I love the wooded, rolling hills of Brandywine country, it’s not my natural subject. But I know that a good sky drives everything, and we seemed set to have a great sky.
Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the clouds had solidified into a solid, grumbling, low mass of grey. The site we were painting on—a sloping, treed lot—wasn’t helped by the lack of sunlight. My go-to answer in impossible situations is to think of how other, greater artists have handled the same situation. (That’s another good reason to know art history.)
It’s hard to get excited about this light.
I could have channeled Andrew Wyeth and romanced a figure into that bleakness, but that would have taken it outside the realm of observational plein air. Plus, we were limited to a 6×8 canvas. And I have no interest in luminismor tonalism, although they may be the right answer for you.
I saw Colin Page briefly at his opening last week. That sparked the question, “What Would Colin Do?” The answer—as well as I can understand another painter—would be to amp the color relationships up, systematically and logically. Of course, Colin does this fluidly and gracefully, because this is the visual space in which he lives.
Salt Marsh, by Carol L. Douglas
Last week, I posted on color harmonies. Two of my students did color harmony paintings last week, both very successfully. I might as well put my own instruction to the test, I thought. I chose a split-complement scheme of gold against green-violet-blue. In truth, the scheme flipped a bit as I went, becoming less systematic, but that was fine too.
Soft Wood, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. This was a rain soaked day.
This kind of painting is the reverse of adding color to a subject under dull light. Soft Wood, above, was painted in a rollicking rainstorm from a farm porch. It’s a more typical way of adding color to a dull scene, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. In fact, it relies on the same understanding of color harmonies.
Autumn trees in Durand Park, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. A similar color sketch from long, long ago.
When I finished yesterday’s painting, I said it looked like a bad Van Gogh. It’s probably more Fauvist. Post-Impressionistfor sure, and that’s not a bad color space for a plein air painter to wallow for a while. Once I’ve started down this rabbit hole, I’m staying here for the nonce. It’s dawning pink and blue here in Delaware, so who knows where the light will go?
Why do I go down these paths, when I already have a style that sells? Why does any artist do that? We’re always striving to get better. Artists are driven to paint because they’re essentially thinkers. When we stop thinking, we stop really painting.