Study of landscape in low key light

Overcast days are common here in North Carolina, and I’m drawn to the quiet moodiness of the low key light when the sun is hidden by clouds. But so much of the teaching I’ve followed has been about how to address brightly-lit landscapes. That’s one of the big things that Impressionists often capture — the sun and its effect on color — and most of my virtual mentors have been in the Impressionist camp. Lately I’ve been exploring Tonalism, and along with that how to handle more diverse light situations related to the landscape.

low key light study oil painting
Study of low key light, 9 x 12, oil on linen

I purchased several lessons from Dianne Mize recently, some of which I applied in my 9 mini landscape paintings project when I experimented with color schemes. Another lesson was on low key light, and how to set up a structure of light and shadow when the lighting is diffused. The shadows are softer, shorter, and the value contrast is reduced. Colors are also lower in intensity. To practice these concepts, I chose a photo I took last March on a local trail, when the sky was filled with a thick cloud layer.

After making some adjustments to the composition in Procreate, I set up a palette of lower intensity colors:

  • yellow ochre light
  • burnt umber
  • terra rosa
  • chromium oxide green
  • purple mixed from permanent alizarin and ultramarine blue (not low key, but there to help lower the intensity of other hues)

Using Centurion oil primed linen mounted on a masonite panel, I rubbed yellow ochre (regular, not light) over the surface and wiped out the light value of the sky. Then I used a bristle brush to scrub in the values of the darker areas. I love the process of doing these monochromatic block-ins! They ease me into the process and are almost meditative. I like how they set me up for a general value structure.

This was my first time using the chromium oxide green. I chose it over sap green because it’s opaque, and I was painting over a monochromatic block-in where I didn’t want the transparent nature of sap green to mess with my values. The yellow ochre light is a little irritating to me because it has a low tinting strength and I kept having to put more and more out on the palette. It would be interesting to see how regular yellow ochre does with this set of colors. Or, a tip from Dianne was to mix an approximation of yellow ochre light with cad yellow deep and value-corrected purple.

This was an eye-opening exercise! There’s still a lot I can study on this topic, but I’m better prepared for what to look for when painting overcast conditions. And I no longer feel like I need to limit my plein air painting experiences to sunny days.

And as an experiment, I put a yellow photo filter effect on the completed painting in Photoshop. This is a direction I’d like to head — where I’m deciding the mood of the painting rather than following the light I see in the reference. I like the color harmony between the sky and the land when the filter is applied.