Painting in Morning Light

Dan Schultz

If you’ve done any plein air painting, you know that light tends to change pretty quickly. This is the first of three posts in which I’ll share some tips for painting in changing light outdoors. First up: painting in morning light.

Morning Light

Morning is the time of day when I most often paint outdoors. It just seems to work best with my schedule. So I’ve become pretty familiar with the effects that tend to happen when the sun is rising from the horizon toward the zenith. Some tips:

1. As you choose your scene, know which direction the sun will travel across the sky. This will give you an idea of possible ways your scene will change.
2. Shadows will shrink. Look for shadows in your scene that will disappear fastest so that you can establish those first in your painting. 

3. A back-lit scene (with you facing the sun) may give you a longer chance to establish your value shapes. Shadows won’t appear to shrink as quickly as they will in a side-lit scene. (Your hat brim or umbrella will keep the sunlight out of your eyes.)

4. Tip number 3 also applies for a front-lit scene (with your back to the sun.)

5. The color temperatures in your scene will probably warm up gradually as the sun gets higher.

6. Stay true to your original idea. It helps to try to finish your painting before the 3-hour mark. (I usually focus on finishing in 1-2 hours.) Once two hours have passed, your scene will have changed significantly, which might tempt you to keep changing your painting to match the changes in your scene. You don’t want to get stuck doing that all day. 

7. Return to the scene if necessary. If you can’t finish in the 2-3 hour window, (especially when working on a large painting), come back another morning at the same time. Then you can continue working in the same light. 
If it’s an overcast morning, shout with glee because you’ll likely have hours of soft, steady light to work with. No shrinking shadows!

In Part 2, we’ll talk about painting at mid-day.

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