Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, March 21, 2011

Weak Winter Sun

Early Morning Paris, 20 x 10 inches, oil on linen

This painting will be available through Anne Irwin Fine Art in June. 
If you're interested in purchasing, please contact the gallery.

Another cityscape. This one is not for my solo show in the fall, but intsead is headed out to Anne Irwin Gallery in Atlanta for a group show in June. I'm sending some Paris-themed city motifs.

The main thing I was after is the depiction of the quality of light. Specifically, I wanted to suggest the weak, cool-ish winter morning light. Here are some of my thought processes behind the decisions I made;

1) Winter light is weak, compared to, say, a hot summer day. In order to convey weak sunlight, the value jump between light and shadow is kept very small. Had I made the shadow areas (I'm talking about the bottom half of the building) darker, I would have ended up with a harsher-feeling light.

2) The big shadow on the building is actually cast by another building across the street. Under harsher light, the cast shadow edge would be much, much sharper. To suggest weak sunlight, its rays perhaps scattered by haze, I kept my edges very soft - in fact there's really no defined edge between the top of half of the building and the bottom half. It's just a gentle gradation. You can see it pretty readily in this b/w image.

3) Even though the value jump is very small and there's no hard edge between light and shadow, I still needed to distinguish light from shadow. To do that, I relied on temperature shifts. The light side leans toward yellow-orange, the shadow side toward red violet.

4)However, neither light nor shadow color is very saturated. They're pretty close to the middle gray (in terms of saturation, not value.) If I were to isolate a small lit area and sampled the color and compared it against a strip of gradation that shows saturation (color picker tool in Photoshop, cropped to a horizontal strip), you can easily see that my yellow sunlit wall is much closer to gray than pure yellow-orange.

Similarly, a sample of shadow color shows that that too, is much closer to gray than fully saturated red-violet.

A part of the reason is just preference. I just like grayed down colors. That is to say, it wouldn't be wrong to make these colors more saturated- you could absolutely make it work. But the fact is, the farther apart they are, the less harmonious they become.

One way to look at color harmony is whether two colors have something in common. The more they have in common, the closer the harmony. Since both of my colors are close to neutral gray, I can say that gray is their big common denominator. I can also say that each color is a slight variation of the neutral gray. Yes, the values differ, but a light gray and medium gray are pretty darn harmonious, it's not really an issue here.

Anyway, so by keeping both colors close to gray, the distance between the two colors (on a color wheel, for example) is relatively close, which means they're likely to be harmonious. And I want the two to be harmonious because after all, I'm describing the same surface, just in slightly different light conditions.

If I pulled the colors farther apart by giving them a greater color shift,  I would find that at some point I'll start to lose continuity and/or the sense of weak winter sun light.

Brighter colors are a lot of fun to manipulate, too, but I thought these subtler colors were more effective in saying what I needed to say.

The appearance of this winter light is helped by other clues such as the hazy gray sky without clear cloud definition, and of course the bare tree in front. If it were a bigger painting, I'd probably have made sure that the figures at the bottom looked like they were in winter clothes, too.

So those are some of the things I thought about in doing this painting. I hope my explanation wasn't too confusing~


  1. I knew this was a European scene, somehow. It is beautiful, Terry, and your description of the process of sorting your values was perfect.

  2. Terry, Thanks for a very good explanation of how even complementary colors can be brought into harmony by graying and decreasing the saturation.

    QUESTION: Did you gray the color by mixing the complements, mixing with a neutral or both?

  3. Thank you for your thoughts and this lesson!

  4. Great post. The photos really help. Wonderful painting!

  5. Thanks for your comments!

    William, I usually get my grays by mixing all three primaries plus white. That way, the gray itself will always have common denominators with every other color. More likely to be harmonious.

  6. Really like the idea of mixing the three primaries with white for the gray. That is really a great idea. Thanks so much for sharing.

  7. Good post Terry! You've given me a recipe for gray that I had not concidered. Your painting is, or reads as you implied. Thanks!

  8. Thanks Anne, Thanks Bill~

    Mixing red, yellow, and blue to get my gray, is actually an imperative, since I don't have oranges, greens, or violets (tube colors) on my palette. I have to mix them. So in effect, I'm mixing compliments to get my grays, but I first have to make those compliments since I don't have them handy.

    Another way to look at it is that it's no different from how I mix every other color, gray or more saturated. ALL (almost all) of my colors are mixed with all three primaries, in varying amounts. My grays are the mixes which don't have a dominant amount of just one or two of the primaries.

    It makes sense, no?