Sunset at Sandy Creek

Sunset at Sandy Creek. 9 x 12. Oil on linen panel.

Sunset at Sandy Creek. 9 x 12. Oil on linen panel.


Late one afternoon, I stuffed my folding easel, paints, and an old straw hat in the back of the car and headed down to Sandy Creek to paint the sunset. The lush horse-pasture was filled with the smell of lazy autumn grasses. It was the perfect place to draw, to paint, to examine nature, and to just be. A cobalt blue-bodied dragonfly with shimmering wings hovered near, curious to know if I was a friend, foe or just a quiet observer of his pasture. The descending sun blazed, flooding the sky with gold as I snatched glances at it. I worked with all the speed I could muster to record the fleeting light; my mind was hungry for details that could later be recalled in the stillness of the studio. Suddenly, without fanfare, the sun slipped below the horizon, leaving the blue dragonfly and me to go our separate ways.

How does an artist capture the sunset and make it seem real? How does a painter create drama in a composition? The answer to both of those questions is the same—it has to do with how the relative values of light and dark are depicted. A tool called the Munsell gray scale helps with this. It is a simple card with white at the top, black at the bottom and ten even divisions of gray going from light to dark. White is 10; black is 1, and 5 is a medium gray. In a quiet painting of fog, the artist eliminates the very light and the very dark, painting with the middle grays. In a portrait of a child, very dark shadows are usually eliminated, and the values in the skin tones are fairly close together. In a dramatic portrait of an adult, the shadows will have more contrast. 

I recently learned in my class "Painting the Magic Hours," taught by artist Deborah Paris, that the values used in painting the landscape on a bright sunny day at noon are very different from the landscape at dawn, twilight, or sunset. At noon the trees are very dark, and the ground plane or grasses are quite light. At sunset, the values are compressed, and the trees and grasses are almost the same value. If you look at the painting of Sandy Creek, you will see that the trees and grasses are just about the same value; only the sky and reflections in the water are light.

The next time you see a painting you enjoy, ask yourself if the values are high or low in contrast, and how that helped the artist to convey the mood or message he or she wanted to convey. Thank you for letting me share my thoughts with you!

-Mallory Agerton