A Darkened Landscape

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Watch this free video about a technique used by the old masters to add color to their paintings. One of the most basic principles of oil painting states to keep your darks thin and your light thick.

First let me cover, what I think, is what most people mean when a teacher tells you to paint dark to light. When you are painting an object such as an apple it is not flat, right? The apple is round…it has depth. You need to paint the darker shadow red of the apple as well as the lighter red of the apple. Only this will make it look round on your flat surface. So…the basic premise of painting dark to light is to paint in the shadow parts or darker colors first and then paint the lighter colors afterwards. Shadow part of the apple, into the main red part of the apple, into the light parts of the apple.

You see, white paint is the painters substitutes for light. Therefore, to paint lighter colors means you will need to use white. As a general rule, the lighter the color, the more white you will use.

A Darkened Landscape

The more white you use, the thicker your paint will be. The thicker your paint will be, the more it will cover the paint that is underneath. If you paint dark to light with wet paint, you will have to pile your paint on thickly to cover what is underneath.

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However, it would still mean having to go thicker. You control these subtle varieties in tone through the thickness of your paint. That goes beyond the scope of this article though, but I do show you how to do this in my 7 Video Instruction Series. For example, look at the robe…on the right side of the picture where the left shoulder of the subject would be, under the robe there is a bright white light area.

It is a pasty white that is applied like putty. If someone worked the other way around and applied the light thinly first and then the darks thicker, you would have these pasty darks, the application of paint would be next to impossible or you would be following more of a watercolor technique. One of the fundamental characteristics of an oil painting is that the paint has body to it. It covers what is underneath it. If you would like to see videos of how to do this, my 7 Video Instruction Series is recommended.

Since these are quite dark, not much white is needed in that mixture therefore the paint with the most body — the thick lead white paint the old masters used — is not there so the paint is not thick. Coincidentally, they are also some of the areas with the thickest paint of the entire picture. The thick parts of the forehead that convey a slightly furrowed brow — they are a putty like paint, with much white.

The highlight on the lips, same putty like paint and thick. The light brush mark on the robe that the arrow points to goes right over the slightly yellower, darker colors of the robe — and of course, has to be thicker to cover it well. There are plenty of examples of very thick dark accents, but like most things, this is a generalization. But, if you are mixing paint on your palette and you are going from the dark mixtures to the light mixtures your paint will naturally become thicker because of the addition of white as you go lighter.

Explore the history of humanity’s relationship with this striking natural phenomenon.

Here is a landscape painting I did that really does follow the traditional procedure of painting dark to light. The darker parts of just about everything were put in first, with the lights being built up gradually. The lighter something is, the thicker the paint was applied to cover what was beneath. Here is a detail image of that painting with arrows I added to point out some key elements that I hope will show you the use of painting dark to light. You see those 3 red arrows? They point to the light parts of the painting — 3 different objects, but all created by applying thicker, lighter color, over darker paint.

The light parts of the trees meant going lighter than the dark green of the shadow parts of the trees, so I had to go thicker to cover the dark and the mixture contained more white paint. The building and a shine of bright sunlight hitting it in certain spots. These very light areas are applied much bodied paint, thick enough to cover the darker parts of the building, created with thinner paint.

What part of that apple do I paint first? Not the darkest darks, at least not for the way I teach.


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Eventually ending with the even lighter parts of the light and the highlight. Same with your painting of Jim. Although what I explained above is, I believe, the most common thought of notion when talking about painting dark to light, I believe what I am about to tell you know is really where the saying originated from. The old masters did not paint on a white ground.

Yes, the base was probably a bright white, which is ultra smart to do, but before painting their actual picture they toned this ground. You may hear this toning layer called varying things. The traditional greee-zeye is made with black and white and of course the traditional greee-zeye is what we are after.

All that brown is the blank canvas.

Not the very darkest darks, but dark nonetheless. He brings his figures out of this darkness with, what is known as an optical gray by using his white paint. The lighter he wants to go the thicker he has painted to cover the original brown toning layer.


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There are parts of the figures that are barely covered with any paint at all as the brown toning layer plays a role in creating the figures. Now, obviously, to paint this way you need that toned layer to begin, you could not start on a white canvas and do this. I really liked the explanation you gave for dark to light. Every painting that I have done with this method has really turned out well. It looks so much more 3 dem. When I first started painting that was the only way we painted.

Your way is much superior in all respects.

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Derryl Murphy’s Over the Darkened Landscape plays with Canadian history

Thank you for the explanation. Hi Kacyn. Currently, both versions are offered. I can do the printing for you the printed version , although the higher price reflects the cost of supplies and time involved. Hi Ethan,when you paint like this,adding more and more white,do you use a medium? The bridge and boat, for instance, so resemble an eye that any true artist might have interpreted this scene similarly without the benefit of the self-portrait.

And any interpretation lacking awareness of the underlying face should be greeted skeptically.

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Once seen, Rembrandt's symbolism shines through: a fisherman sits quietly in the "pupil of the artist's eye" while a river pours timelessly through it. This means that the artist will catch and perceive some visual element to turn into poetry, perhaps even suggesting we only use a very small portion of the visual data entering our eye as science now confirms.

Storm clouds hint at how Rembrandt's compositions are formed by the dark and powerful forces of nature in his mind while the verdant land expresses its fertility. A copse of trees, perhaps mimicking "a paintbrush", rises up from his "eye", blown to the right by winds. Like all prophets he, the artist, is merely a channel through which divine power express its will.

Remember methods like these; look out for features that resemble an eye; become familiar with an artist's self-portraits; and you too will be amazed at what you can see on your own, no help required.