At the Cape School, still life study was done outdoors in full sunlight as a means of beginning the development of a student’s color perception—there were many advantages to this “color study” regimen, chief of which was the absolute necessity to concentrate on the task at hand before the light changed.

"You cannot see an object except as it exists in the light in which it is seen."
—Henry Hensche 

Our first consideration is to not paint the objects in front of us—but rather to see and paint the effect of light falling on the objects.

To that end, Hensche used a (deceptively) simple exercise for forcefully transmitting this concept—students were to set up colored blocks on tabletops outside and capture the light effect on these "still lives" using simplified color notes.  These block studies let us, for the time being, forget about making “pictures” — and focus instead on learning how to create the illusion of form in space through accurate color relationships.

It only took a few attempts for us to realize how challenging the block studies were, and how
important a strong "start" (the initial lay-down or “first statement” of color notes) was in achieving the illusion of light. We learned to recognize and stop work on a poor start, and start a new one. We were advised to keep improving our eye by making repeated starts. We learned that real improvement was gained only after doing many, many starts. When we had attained some competence working in sunlight, we were encouraged to begin to tackle subtler lighting conditions (gray day, hazy day, open shade, interior north light, etc.).  And once we'd demonstrated an understanding of how to start and maintain the "big masses" of color in simple objects, we were encouraged to incorporate more traditional still life objects into our studies.

Once this approach to stating the light effect is learned, the student develops a higher degree of color perception through practice.  Paying attention to seeing the light effect first, rather than the “local” color we know an object to be, lets us express a more convincing and beautiful illusion of reality.

Eventually this “simple” approach to painting can be applied to more complex subject matter. Through simplification, we applied one of Hawthorne’s tenets: Painting is simply placing one spot of color next to one another—in accurate relationship!.

ligHT effect

When the weather is variable, a useful tactic is to divide your panel in two so you can continue work on your setup when the light changes. 


Hawthorne on Painting—the consummate text on how and why to paint in color.

If you don’t believe me, read the reviews at Amazon (but do yourself and your friendly, independently-owned neighborhood bookstore a favor and buy it local):

Ansel Adams—think of his “zone system” (in which the photographer previsualizes a print’s desired tonal range in order to determine the correct film exposure) as comparable to the first color note you choose in your start.

Sunny Day Bottles, oil on panel, 16 x 20”

Block study—Hazy sun (top)/Full sun (bottom)

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Plein air painting

Terra Cotta & Sea Shell, oil on panel, 16 x 20”

Black Block in Sunlight, oil on panel, 16 x 12”