Immediate spoiler: There isn’t a formula for learning how to paint like Monet. But as Camille Przewodek explains, it’s a way of thinking, “a visual growth about understanding light keys and the relationship between colors on the canvas.”
Camille describes herself as “a plein air colorist” who, “in the representational tradition of Monet, is primarily focused on capturing the light key of nature.” In this guest feature, Camille explains the development of this style of art, what “light keys” are, and how to understand them in a way to help your landscape paintings be masterful. For even more guidance and instruction, don’t miss Camille’s art video workshop, “A Colorist’s Guide to Painting.” ~ Cherie
Understanding Light Keys
BY CAMILLE PRZEWODEK
Henry Hensche (1899-1992), a student of Charles Hawthorne’s, developed a way of teaching color in the tradition of Monet. He would have students start out with primary-colored blocks, where you take everything out of the equation and focus only on painting the differences in these color blocks. It is not about painting a finished painting, but studying how to paint the effect of light on objects with pigment. After you master these studies, you can then apply what you have learned to your paintings.
As a side note, I believe Rembrandt would be a colorist today if he was alive. He didn’t have the pigments that Monet had. If you are not using a full palette of color, you aren’t using the technology that is available to artists today.
Hensche was a classically trained artist when he arrived at the Cape School to study with Hawthorne. After he was introduced to Hawthorne, he made it his life’s work to pass on what Hawthorne was teaching. Hensche was encouraged to go modern during the Abstract Expressionist period, but decided not to. If he had gone modern, what Monet was doing would have died, but Hensche kept it alive and taught it for over 50 years.
During the Abstract Expressionist period, there were two major colorist movements that were not popular:
Hensche/Hawthorne and Sergei Bongart. They both were teaching how to paint the light key of nature, and both valued Hawthorne. Hensche was German and dedicated his life to capturing specific light keys of nature. His paintings were more about light keys and less about brushwork. Bongart was Russian and had bravado in his brushstrokes and more expressive paintings.
Light Key of Nature: the specific quality of light on a subject. Hensche stated, “We cannot see anything, except as it exists in the light in which it is seen.” Essentially, what we are painting, then, is not the object or subject in front of us, but the effect of light falling on them. When we refer to light key, we are referring to not only the light, but the collection of variables that modify the light falling on the subject, such as the time and type of day, the prevailing atmospheric conditions, nearby reflecting surfaces, etc. Whether it is sunny or cloudy, morning or afternoon, in the desert, near the ocean, etc.
I focus my students on developing their color perception, and it takes years of practice, with good instruction, to develop as a colorist. It takes years of painting on location and developing your color memory.
Students ask me how I get the color or the color harmony in my paintings. My answer is that I start with one color and then I put an adjacent color next to it, and do that until I have covered the canvas. I paint by relating all the colors to one another and painting the differences between each color. There is no limit to the development of your color perception. I am still growing as a colorist, and this is what I love about what I do.
I try to paint the light key of nature, and color is important in my paintings. If it is the right color, it is the right value, hue, and saturation. Most plein air painters focus on value, composition, and edges, which are all important. I feel color is of equal importance as value.
People say color cannot be taught as it is personal. Hensche demonstrated that it can be taught, and that there is just no color instruction. Of course, if my husband and I painted the same scene, we would use different colors, but we would be relating all the colors to one another. ~ C.P.
To learn more about light keys, check out Camille’s art video workshop, “A Colorist’s Guide to Painting” >>>
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