Edwin C. Bertolet has painted this area countless times. How did he freshen up a familiar scene at the baylands in the San Francisco area?

Lead Image: “Light on the Water,” by Edwin C. Bertolet, 2015, oil, 11 x 14 in.

“It is always a challenge to find new ways to interpret the same scene, and the late-afternoon sun gave me an opportunity to do so at the baylands,” he says. “First, I was painting into the light as the sun was directly in front of me. Second, the atmosphere was hazy, eliminating most of the local color. That suggested a tonal approach.”

The light on the water created a set of challenges. Bertolet found himself studying the values closely. The atmosphere was compressing them. The sunlight was nonetheless bright. “Brilliant reflections on water are always a challenge, and you usually need to keep ambient values dark enough to get them to work,” the painter points out. “In this case, the misty atmosphere actually made the ambient atmosphere on the light side. A dilemma! That situation made it imperative that I use a very limited gamut, and made it extremely important that I get the relational values accurate across a very limited range. The sky and mountain are very close in value but slightly lighter than the water. It is important to remember that the eye is so sensitive to contrast that very little is needed to be effective.”

Even after he navigated those tricky waters, Bertolet felt the painting wasn’t quite there yet. “The painting was coming along, but seemed to be missing a critical element,” he recalls. “That’s when I decided to add the halo from the sun in the atmosphere. Voila! That was the ‘magical’ element, as it increased the visual depth and implied the sun just off the picture plane. Also, by lightening the mist just behind the tree, it gave volume to the atmosphere — all very subtle value changes, but so important to the painting’s success.”

Bertolet observes, “The halo seems stronger when the painting is viewed in low-level light. I haven’t yet figured out the reason but suspect that a lower light level opens the iris wider so the eye’s receptors may be more sensitive to lighter values. Or maybe the lower light level pushes the darker values together, heightening the contrast between the light and dark. Maybe both effects are at work?”

Bertolet realizes that his composition breaks one of the most preached tenets of composition: Don’t put the center of interest in the center of the canvas. “The centered halo and reflection give a solid static vertical that the offset tree works against,” he points out. “In this instance I believe the centering is actually an exception to the rule, as the painting would seem unbalanced if the reflection and halo were shifted to one side or the other.”


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