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Feb 21, 2010

Through a Glass Darkly...

No specialized painting tool can replace a need to develop artistic skill and judgement when painting the landscape, but there are some tools which can aid us in gaining that skill and judgemen – and once they have – are better off left back in the studio. An example of such a tool would be the Claude Glass.

Claude Lorraine has been credited with bringing a small blackened mirror – what was commonly referred to as a "smoked glass" in his time – out into the field, and using it as a way to consolidate the color and value relationships he saw in the landscape. During the 17th and 18th century these mirrors became so prevalent that the painter who was spotted using one was often mocked. You can see why from the drawing attributed to Gainsborough found below. To use a Claude Glass you had to position yourself by facing in the opposite direction of your subject. (The Claude Glass you see here is being held in the artist's left hand, with the pen and paper being held in his lap under his right hand. Note how the tree branch is being used to support the mirror. This implies the glass used at the time had some serious heft. Certainly this one did. If it is at all accurate in its depiction then it was an unusually large Claude Glass for its time.)

But despite the potential for absurdity, a Claude Glass can serve a fundamental and practical purpose. By consolidating the color and value relationships in the scene, the mirror reveals the scene's underlying shapes and patterns – all of which may then be exploited by the artist to create a strong design. A Claude Glass also helps to edit out the superfluous and sometimes overwhelming detail the artist must learn to ignore anyway.

An illustration of the principle:

With the aid of a Claude Glass you can immediately see how the left area of the sky (A) is in fact lighter than the green furrows found in the middle ground (C)/ This is an important distinction to make early on in the painting. You can also see that the distant hills and mid-ground trees on the right (B) are quite close in value. (And, the mid-line trees on the left also contain the darkest values to be found in the entire image, against against the lightest value of the sky. There will be more on that classic compositional ploy in some later post.) 

You can also see that all the trees in the mid-ground are closer in value to each other than they are to the distant hills, or to much else in the foreground. Initially, you might have thought that was different. (Of course, you could choose to make some of those trees associate with the distant hills, but that would depart from reality, and it is always best to first become aware of the reality is before departing from it. That way end result is driven by artistic choices and not by accident.)

Recognizing and establishing such basic value relationships from the git-go, and maintaining them as you work, makes everything else flow much more smoothly. Ultimately you end up with a more successful and effortless looking painting. Successful from the standpoint of creating a sense of deep space that recedes into the picture plane. Effortless in the way the painting appears to have simply flowed out of your brush.

Also, take some time to look at the black and white graphic. It portrays two masses of light and dark. As if all other values in between had to commit to one way or another. This is know as "Massing your values". In this case, the black and white shapes have not produced a particularly interesting pattern because there isn't much intertwining or wrapping taking place, and they share about the same emphasis and equal area. The most interesting bits are just below the tractor, where there are assorted shapes and sizes to be found. But with a little judicious license taken by the painter wielding the brush, something more interesting can result. Look at the white arrow in the middle image. It indicates a slight modulation in value along those furrowed rows. There is a light to dark(er) gradation running from left to right. It is subtle, but there. A gradation most people might miss unless it was pointed out. My artistic approach would be to accentuate that shift on the right and thus link the top and bottom masses together. Accentuate the gradation by how much, you ask? Couldn't say without actually getting the paint box out and going to work. But I think you get the idea. Those minor tweaks you or I invest into the work make all the difference in the world.


With regards to making or using a Claude Glass, my general advice is don't bother. We can accomplish much of the same thing by simply squinting our eyes and one less thing to carry out into the field is a good thing.

The real question should be, what does it mean to organize our lights and darks into two respective masses? As previously mentioned, it means dividing the values of a scene into two groups. Sounds easy but it isn't. However, this is one of the fundamental tricks to painting the landscape and the practice of it spans the entire history of European art. Pick any period, pick any masterwork, and you will see what I mean. (From the Renaissance on, please.)There may be exceptions to this rule, but they are few.

Sometimes, it helps to look at your painting upside down so what you see becomes abstract. But in time that stops being necessary because you become so adept at spotting two masses and reinforcing them in paint. And eventually, you start seeing that the most interesting compositions have those light and dark masses interlocked in exciting and varied ways: stacked, spiraling, or twisting. The possibilities are endless.


4 reader comments:

Larry Carter said...

Thank you for posting this. I know using value properly is one of my major weakness.


Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Glad to know you found it useful. I have plans to elaborate on the subject on a later date.

And again, thanks for the scraper. Haven't used it yet, but will.


michael orwick said...

I over heard a great quote that stuck with me, and that I use all the time. Values do the lifting, color gets the credit.
Do you have any thoughts on the use of clear red
acetate paper to look through to see values? I think kevin macpherson markets one.
At one of my first workshops i ever attended I remember the instructors palette had "Squint Squint Squint!" written very large on it to remind himself of it's intrinsic value.

Congrats on getting in to the Oil Painters of America National Show. What a year you are having.

Al the best,
Mike O

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Hi Micheal:

Always happy to hear from you.

I imagine that looking through a piece of red film would do much the same as peering through a Claude Glass although perhaps it would not consolidate the values as much. I can't remember, does Kevin talk about using red acetate in his excellent book, "Fill Your Oil Paintings with Light and Color?" Or does he talk about it his later one?

But as I mentioned, squinting works well for me, as does taking off my glasses so I can't see the smaller shapes. (Which probably also means I'll continue to become looser as I age. Ha!) You might remember me taking them off the last time you and I went painting together in December. Brrr, that was a cold day!

As for your quote, you know me from those early days in my classroom -- I don't really separate value, hue, and chroma from each other as I work except for when I am actually mixing the color I need or problem-solving. (BTW: There is an excellent series of posts going up on James' Gurney's blog right now on exactly this subject. You'd find it interesting. After 25 years of painting plein air, I know I still do: http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com

Thanks for the Oil Painter's of American congratulations!

I was informed that both of my entries made it past the first round of judging last week by one of the judges, which apparently is something of a coup since they had over 2,600 submissions this year -- and that the final judge, Ned Mueller ( http://www.nedmueller.com ) would make the final selection as to which of the two paintings would be hung in the national show. Just received official notice late last night.

So that is out of my hands now. How well that painting is received is up to people other than me. Godspeed, eh? time to move on to a new painting.

I will post that OPA painting here later today for you and everyone else to see. Please feel welcome to comment on it as you or anyone else sees fit. Good, bad, indifferent. I'm always open to everyone's views . . .