Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Oil Painting of Telescope Peak in Death Valley Oil on Wood: an Evaluation

Painting breathtaking scenes poses one huge challenge: conveying the awe into an oil painting. How does the artist squeeze such wonder onto a small panel? This painting of sunrise over Telescope Peak in Death Valley posed just such a challenge for artist Jennifer Tuininga Kennedy. 

About Telescope Peak in California 

Painting of Telescope Peak, Death Valley
Jennifer Tuininga Kennedy
Telescope Peak at over 11,000 feet overshadows Badwater Basin, Death Valley’s lowest point. Its slopes boast the most vertical climb within the national park but will reward a view of Mount Whitney and Charleston Peak over a hundred miles away. Hence the name, Telescope Peak. The strength of this painting can be seen in how the artist has selected detail from the photograph to create a more dynamic composition. The photograph itself contains too much information without a particular focal point. A straight copy would have resulted in a muddled painting without anywhere for the eye to go.

Dynamic Composition of
Telescope Peak in California
However, here, the artist has selected part of the photograph to create a forceful composition through focal points and visual channels. This has been clarified by the image overlaid by dark lines. The eye is led into the valley via a track that runs from left to right. This is balanced out by jagged peaks and cols.

Color Balance of Landscape Painting 

Here we can see the artist was keen to convey the vividness of the sunlit peaks as sunrise, which in real life must have been surreal. By contrast, the violets and mauves within the shadows would appear to almost shimmer against the oranges. Such vivid hues in real life will often cause the artist to reach for the most vivid colors the palette can offer. The result however may cause disappointment at how this vivid color does not reflect what was seen in real life.

The reason for this might be any of the following:

1 The colors of real life are often not as vivid as our minds lead us to believe. For instance, green grass is often not the pure green of viridian. Take a photograph and cut out the green part, and on close inspection may appear a little brownish or blue or even grey. A blue sky will often contain pinks and yellows. A color’s local color (the color by which it is labeled) will often differ to how it appears in reality under various lighting conditions.

2 Bright colors, being a focal point are often in danger of being perceived in isolation of its surroundings. Bright colors must be balanced out with its neighboring colors to make sense. This means making comparisons. Is it cooler/warmer than the next hue? Is it more muted?

3 Finally, a painting comprises two aspects: color value and tone. Bright colors may cause the artist to forget about the tonal value of that color – i.e., how light or how dark it is. Tonal value gets overlooked by the color’s vividness. But how can these issues be put right?

How to Paint Mountain Peaks in Sunlight 

This painting comprises steep shifts in hue between orange and violet. Such bizarre color shifts may cause tone to be forgotten. The shadow colors are quite close to the hues exhibited in the photograph; sensitive observations in tone can be seen within the contours of the foothills. Similarly, the sky color is accurately portrayed. However ,the artist has expressed dissatisfaction with the sunlit peaks.

We can see from the photograph that the pinks are in fact quite muted and similar in tone to the sky color. The oranges within the painting are deeper in tone and very bright, causing this color to appear to advance instead of receding. My suggestion is to work over this area with thin oil paint (or start afresh if preferable). Use a stiff brush to work a little oil paint over the existing colors but go easy on the linseed oil to maintain opacity, as the color underneath could show through.

During the over-painting, notice how the soft, dusky pinks of the peaks appear to almost melt into the sky without harsh outlines.

Tonal Value of Telescope Peak 

Notice also the soft transition of tone between sunlit areas and shadow. Suggested color mixes might be (with varying amounts of white):

For the sunlit peaks: a little burnt sienna and permanent rose (to achieve a warm, pinkish hue). Introduce a little ultramarine for the pale violets. Most importantly, adjust the tonal value of the peaks until it is quite similar to the sky. Keep looking at how this tone compares to its neighboring color.

For the shadowed foothills: ultramarine, permanent rose (and a little burnt umber to temper violet overkill in select places). A little burnt umber and ultramarine can be used for the darkest areas such as the foreground and deepest shadows.

Pthalo blue, cobalt (or similar cool blue) can be added to the mix for cooler blues within the shadowed foothills. Soften the shadow colors on the foothills (not all) to express the transition between shadow and sunlight. A little sharp detail will be needed for the crags.

Neat white via a fine sable can be used to express the snow. But add a little cobalt (or similar cool blue) to express snow in shadow.

Color Balance on Mountain Art in Oils 

Bizarre colors can often be seen in dramatic landscapes which can cause the artist to reach for the most vivid hues to express the experience. The reality is that the color is more muted than is led to believe. This is a common problem with painting beautiful landscapes such as this scene of Telescope Peak in Death Valley. The secret is to take note of the color’s tonal value and how it relates to neighboring colors.

A vivid color in isolation will make little sense if it has no balance with its neighbors. Fortunately, this problem can easily be put right by working over select areas of the painting (in this case the sunlit peaks) with thin oil paint. By addressing how tones and colors relate to one another within a landscape painting, other problems often get resolved.

Related Articles on Painting Dramatic Landscapes

How to judge lights and darks in painting
Tips on painting mountains
Capturing light like the impressionists

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