Although painting an overcast day is not something I generally do (I definitely have a preference for sunny days!), while in Spain teaching a plein air workshop at the beginning of May, the weather was more often overcast than sunny. So what could we do except go with what we had?
Painting an overcast day brings certain challenges with it. So how do we depict a scene to show that it is indeed an overcast day?
First off, often you can see local colour better under a cloudy sky (photographers of gardens often prefer overcast days for this reason). Bright light tends to eradicate colour on lit surfaces while at the same time making shadows seem very dark in contrast. So colour is usually more easily seen in the middle-value range. On overcast days, however, all colours are generally less saturated and more muted.
Values tend to stick more closely together, that is, usually there are none of the extreme dark/light contrasts you find on sunny days. In the sunlight, there’s a clear distinction between light and shadow areas. And so we create our value sketch from these distinctions. On an overcast day when such distinctions are lacking, we need to look at the pattern created by the dark and light colours of the things themselves – a dark car against a white wall, a white building against a thundercloud sky. This is a great time to find silhouettes eg. the shape of a light-coloured boat against a dark sea or the shape created by a stand of trees against a light sky. And so we look for interesting shapes of dark against light and vice versa rather than the pattern of light and dark created by a strong light source.
You also find when painting an overcast day that since there’s no strong directional light source (the sun), the sky itself becomes the light source. Thus the light is diffuse and settles evenly across the scene. And how does this show itself in a painting? By painting softer edges especially on cast shadows. If there are shadows visible at all, they will be soft. Compare them to shadows thrown on a sunlit day – you’ll see sharp clear edges.
One more thing is to consider colour temperatures. On sunny days, the sunlit areas tend to have a warmer feel to them, particularly when compared to the cooler shadow areas. Overcast days, on the other hand, feel generally cooler. Sometimes the shadows will feel warmer but this isn’t always the case.
The primary thing when painting an overcast day is to use your eyes to try and see what’s really there. Always compare areas, seeing whether they are darker, lighter, warmer, cooler, than another area.
Now, just because the day feels dull doesn’t mean your painting has to be dreary. I spoke about using a colourful underpainting in my previous blog, and the idea certainly comes into play in this case. I wanted the painting to read overcast yet have a colourful feel to it.
Here’s a painting I did as a demo. You can see how all the above notes come into play.
We had very few sunny days on this workshop (unexpected to say the least in sunny Costa Brava!) but still, my students worked diligently through the conditions. Here are some photos of them at work.
Our scheduled day to paint in the Gardens of Cap Roig brought with it another overcast day. This allowed us to walk the whole garden since we didn’t spend time setting up and painting. Along the way, however, we ended up having an impromptu lesson about how I would go about painting an overcast day with a specific scene. Here’s the view. It looks pretty uninteresting, particularly in the photo.
This was a prime case of looking for the dark shapes against the light. Here the trees made an interesting and complex shape against the sky and sea. We talked about it and then everyone made a thumbnail value sketch on location. Once back at the hotel, two students decided to take those thumbnails and create paintings from them while I painted the scene laid out above. Here they are working beside me.
And here are some daily results from my students. We would try to gather at the end of a day to review the pieces and their experiences painting them. I always loved to see the unique style and vision of each.
I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful set of students – full of eagerness to absorb anything I could offer, committed to doing the work, and just plain lovely souls! Thank you, Joe, Margaret, Steve, and Sue!! You made for an awesome painting holiday workshop!
Here we are, back in Barcelona, with our delightful assistant and guide Natalia.
I hope that my tips for painting an overcast day as well as my example will have you considering painting an overcast day too. Or do you already go out and paint overcast days? If so, do tell us about it! You know how I LOVE to hear from you!!
Until next time (when we have this month’s guest blogger!!),
PS. Here’s the scene I painted as it looks on a sunny day. Even though it’s late in the day and the sun’s not shining directly on the rocks, you can get a sense of the difference – more saturated colour, more warmth, more darks vs lights.
And the lovely village itself: