paint dramatic lighting
James Gurney shows how to create a surrealistic townscape, on location
Who says you have to copy mundane reality when you’re outside, plein air painting? Why not give the facts a surreal twist? I’ve always been interested in the two realms: the banal, commonplace stage on which we act out our lives and the realm of dreams just behind the veil. Here I want to explore where those two worlds intersect.
To get the ball rolling, I scout a location in a small town along the Hudson River in New York State. I consider some ways to transform the street scene in front of me. Maybe a giant snake is coming out of a manhole cover, or a 60-foot-tall cartoon figure is stepping over buildings like some sort of Toon-Zilla. If I bring a model car to the location, I can use it as a maquette and make it float up above the rooftops, perhaps lifted by a tractor beam.
To add to the mystery, I choose a time of day when the light is coming down at 45 degrees, but I’ll limit the light to one beam illuminating just one house like a theatrical spotlight. This could never happen in the real world, because only an aperture in the clouds could frame a ray of light at that time of day. Those rays from clouds are not so focused. They transition from full light to full shadow very gradually – over the space of at least a city block. Smaller, more concentrated local spots of light could happen around sunset, but in that case, the light would be travelling almost horizontally. So whether the viewer is conscious of it or not, this targeted downlighting communicates an alien, strange feeling.
Why paint such a scene outside? The answer is that when I’m face to face with Nature, there are a thousand colour ideas and impressions that give my painting added conviction. And being on location is a huge kick in the pants for speeding up the painting process. I can get done in one afternoon what would otherwise take me a week in the studio.
I’ll be using casein, a water-based paint with a milk protein binder that was popular before acrylics. It’s a lot like gouache, ideally suited to fast, direct, opaque handling. It’s also the physical paint technique most like Photoshop –except that there’s no Cmd-Z.