Painting in Morning Light

Painting in Morning Light

with 7 Comments

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.

Early Light • 8x10 inches • Oil on Linen Panel
One of my paintings done outdoors in morning light. Those mountain shadows don’t last long!

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. Ojai Orchard • 11x14 inches • Oil on Linen Panel
    Example of a backlit scene in morning light, producing clearly separated light and shadow shapes in the foreground.

    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. 
  8. 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. 

Do you have other thoughts about painting in morning light? Leave a comment below!

7 Responses

  1. Jake Gaedtke
    | Reply

    These are all great tips, Dan. I always do a thumbnail sketch to establish my value shapes and composition that I see at that moment. I refer to it quite often as the light changes though out the morning. It keeps me from “chasing the light” and focused on the values I saw when I first began. Thanks for a great newsletter.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Great tip, Jake — I’ll have to include it in my next post. Can’t believe I didn’t mention it in this post!

  2. Lynn Davis-Smith
    | Reply

    Great topic, Dan! I find it hard not to chase the light!

  3. Leigh sparks
    | Reply

    Thanks I really enjoy your new and tips! Come paint down in Carp! We are going to Bluffs Tomorrow morn!!!

  4. Janis Commentz
    | Reply

    I love watching your work appear on social media and your blog is practical and inspirinng. Thank you!

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