On Painting The Sun: Monet’s Choice
If you paint the sun, you are always confronted with a specific choice: you either have to try and establish the correct value relationship by making the sun very light on your canvas or you must go for the color, in which case the value relationship will be incorrect but the color relationship will be closer to the truth. The reason for this is simply that the highest value pigment we have is pure white. (It is unlikely we would even use pure white because a glob of pure would look “chalky” or artificial.) Once we add color, say a tiny bit of cadmium yellow light, it would look somewhat more real, but then the brightness or value would be diminished by that tiny amount. And if we were to then mix in small amounts of cadmium orange or maybe vermillion, we would probably get closer to the actual color of the sun, particularly if it were low in the sky, but at the same time the value or brightness would decrease even further. Such is the nature of paint as compared to actual light, or energy. So the choice is either to go for the value, white with a tiny bit of yellow (which would be the highest value color note we could make), or to go for the color – a hot orangey-red color, perhaps. It’s one or the other. But both are impossible. Let me use Monet’s famous Impression Sunrise to illustrate this point:
On the left is the actual famous painting and on the right is the same painting but in black and white. Notice how the sun in the black and white version practically disappears. What this means is that in the actual painting (in color), the sun is the same value as the darker blue colors. In other words, Monet has sacrificed value in order to get the color. Let’s see what it would have looked like had he done the reverse, if he had sacrificed color in order to get closer to the proper value relationship.
In the image on the left I have replaced Monet’s orangey-red sun and its reflection with white and a tiny bit of yellow. Notice that in the black and white version on the right, the sun is the brightest thing in the sky; the value relationship is relatively correct. But in order to get closer to the correct value, the richness of the color is lost.
Here’s the point: there is no way to get rich color and high value with paint. It comes down to choice. Some artists (George Inness comes to mind) have made wonderful paintings where the sun is bright but weak in color. Monet, however, always seems to have gone for the color.
My Big Fat Warning!
I am hopeful that this type of blog provides some food for thought. But I hesitate in writing this sort of thing because the information also feeds a mechanical process that becomes a formula. It is fine, if not necessary, to have knowledge in the back of your head, but when you are painting, the process must be driven by the feelings you have as you become one with nature, when you resonate or vibrate with the light that is absorbing you, and you it. So it would be unwise to go out and say, “I’m going to approach it the way Monet did as opposed to the way Inness did.” Rather, wait until you get there. Open yourself to seduction. Will you get lost in the warm volcanic vermillion of the sun’s warmth or will you surrender to the bright dancing notes of a sparkling sun? Formula picture making is so 9 to 5.