Chasing the Light

When Rules are Meant to be Broken

Ever since the early eighties, when I began studying plein air painting in a serious way, I have been cautioned not to “chase the light” when painting on location; but as in everything, in art there are no hard rules, only a lot of sound advice based on experience. That experience is passed down to other artists, who sometimes take those gems of thought and enshrine them into so called “rules” that were never meant to be. The old saying, “rules are meant to be broken,” more often than not, is a good rule to follow when approaching the study of painting. In one sense, without the breaking of these “rules,” no real progress is made in artistic expression. After all, it’s the constant pushing against the envelope that spawns new ideas and ways of doing things.

I may be assuming too much in expecting all my readers to know what I am talking about when I use the phrase “chasing the light.” This is a term that basically means that as shadows change on the landscape the painter changes the shadows on the painting itself in order to keep up with what is going on in nature. It is a generally held belief that responding to these changes as they occur is not a good procedure to follow because you never know what you will end up with. So the “rule,” as it were, would be to have a plan in mind and stick to it. Generally speaking, this is sound advice and merits our thoughtful consideration as artists.

Chasing the light is risky business to be sure, but it can pay off artistically if you have the courage to fail. After all, it’s only a small piece of canvas and some paint we’re dealing with here! Through personal experience I have gained out in the field over the years, I have found there are certain situations when chasing the light is not only OK, but actually preferable to sticking with a predetermined arrangement of the painting’s design. The longer I paint the more I come to understand that there are many different approaches to painting and great results can be had in various ways.

I can explain this better by illustrating a couple of real life examples of where this approach has worked for me. One day I was out painting in the Albion Basin on a sunny day when I noticed a fast moving storm moving up the canyon and realized that I would be enveloped by rain in a matter of minutes. My first reaction was to pack up and leave, but as I contemplated that idea, I looked over at the scene I originally started to paint and noticed a unique lighting situation that was common to the way things look right before a storm. I wondered if I would be able to capture the light effect on this outcropping of rocks before it changed altogether. Since I was already set up and had just started the sunny day painting, I figured I had nothing to lose. I pulled my poncho out of my backpack and began to work feverishly. The canvas size was an 8×10 and I was able to capture the effect I was after in about 15 minutes before the gale hit. The toughest thing about the whole experience was packing up and hauling my gear down the rainy, rugged terrain; the actual painting experience was exhilarating!

The way I approached this subject was very different than my usual method of a preliminary wash and placement of the various forms. I had to first go over the paint I had already put down, and, with the palette knife, make sure there weren’t any high spots; this would have to serve as the underpainting. A raw direct painting approach was the only thing that could work here! Thinking in terms of dark, medium and light, I laid in the various rock-forms with thick paint, responding to what was going on in the landscape as it was unfolding. A preliminary design was not to be had on this occasion and any finesse in the area of drawing had to be abandoned. The whole approach was one of color and value choices coupled with some attention to edges and paint handling; it was simply a matter of painting economics.

On another recent occasion I was taken by the subtle shadows on the Wasatch Range at the end of a painting class I was teaching. I decided to go back a few evenings later and set up about an hour before the same designated time when a similar lighting situation would present itself. Blocking in the major masses of foreground, middle-ground, mountain and sky, I cleaned off the mixing area of my palette and waited for the desired shadows to return. At just the right time I began to work quickly and lay in those shadows as they were developing in front of me. Because of the rapidly changing light at this time of evening, I expanded the shadows I originally started with in order to enhance the study as the shadows grew. I was able to get the desired effect just before noticing that an even greater lighting effect had hit some of the crevices and peaks on another mountain just to the right of where I was painting. Since that evening I have not been able to return because of a series of snowstorms that hit late in the season. The plan is a return trip in which the desired shadows will have to be put down in about a 15 minute span of time before they fade away. Wish me luck!

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