Directing Sunlight

posted in: Blog | 14

Landscape artists of the 17th century fell under the spell of the mysteries offered through directed sunlight and shadow. The painting surface became a platform for theatrical stage lighting. It would influence later stage sets and their illumination just as previously the theater was an inspirational source for the design of landscape paintings.

Artists placed pools of sunlight strategically across their surface to build a sensation of space tripping back into the painting. Dutch and Italian artists of the 17th century established some of the conventional forms artists use today. Observe Jacob Van Ruisdael’s “Landscape with Waterfall” from 1670 (example 1). We follow the highlighting on the falls which are isolated by dark territories above and below. Then we move toward the illuminated background.  The sky backlights the trees.  The composition has us move through light to dark to light cross-sections as you would move through a shadow box.

Consider a contemporary English painter, Nigel Cooke’s work, “Morning Has Broken” (example 2).  Like the van Ruisdael we have backlighting with silhouetted trees. In contrast the splash of light on the waves and building in the lower left receives light from a different direction. The lighting and some design parallels between  Van Ruisdael and Cooke’s work are observable.  We can see how contemporary artists can refer to historical models and re-invent them.

Example 1. Jacob Van Ruisdael, 1670, “Landscape with Waterfall”,

Example 2. Nigel Cooke, 2005, “Morning has Broken” about 12ft x 7ft.

If we look through Ruisdael’s line of trees we see short vertical notes of light through vaguely silhouetted trees. The light through the distant line of trees appears through  backlighting while the light on the falls appears to descend diagonally from above. I too use the pattern of receding light patches interrupted by the shadowed areas in my examples. I also use backlighting coming through the distant trees to draw attention to the furthest distance.

In “Secluded Sunlight” I have a patch of light in the lower left and the back ground washed in sunlight. Here are two steps in the process of making “Secluded Sunlight” (examples 3 and 4).

Example 3,  step one of “Secluded Sunlight” on brushed silver enameled Dibond,

Example 4. Step two of “Secluded Sunlight” and current state,

In “Pond Life” the setting is more intimate, without a horizon.  The articulation of edge information is almost uniformly sharp because, the landscape is pressed into very close view.  The illumination comes from behind and above. Once again there is backlighting along with a few patches of illumination in the foreground.

Here are three step-by-step examples (examples 5, 6, and 7).

Example 1. Step one of “Pond Life”, laying in color and rough design,

Example 2. Step two, adding a blanket of soft textures to begin to arouse the recognition of the texture of grasses.

Example 3. Step three, current state of “pond Life” an oil on white Dibond,

I invite you to join me in November at Art of the Carolinas, sponsored by Jerry’s Artarama in Raleigh, N.C. I have three one-day workshops. Friday, November 15, it’s “Spectacular Flowers” from 9 to 4, use code FR 1907 to register.  Saturday, it’s Water Scapes” from 9 to 4, use code SA1907 to register.  And, Sunday, it’s “Natural Patterns, Abstracting Nature” from 9 to 4 use code SU1907 to register. Go to to register.

I have a few openings in my Raliegh, NC workshop at the Centerpiece Gallery.  This is a 3 day workshop covering historical as well as new techniques and ideas. September 11 through 13.  Call them at 919 838 8530 or,

I invite you to join me at an opening of my work at the Attic Gallery in Camas, Washington (across the river from Portland, Oregon) on  September 6th. Contact the Attic Gallery at 421 NE Cedar Street, Camas , Washington 360-833-9747 or contact at



14 Responses

  1. Patricia Scanlan

    Beautiful David. It’s a pleasure and so instructive to see the progression of your paintings.

  2. Jane Haverty

    David, I LOVE your work and very much want to attend another workshop ( I met you at the workshop you held this past spring in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fl., and I bought one of your gorgeous paintings..). However, I will be out of the country in mid-September and attending my niece’s wedding in mid-November. When and where will your next workshop(s) be? I want to attend. Please advise.

    Thank you.

    Warmly, Jane Haverty

    • dd_admin

      Jane, so sorry for this late reply. I appreciate your participation and your purchase. We post upcoming workshops on the website . See the home page here and go to the box “Classes and events”. they should be listed there. Or, email me directly at
      Best, David

  3. Sandy Goddard

    Thank you for publishing this blog, David! Each post is fascinating. I’d love to know more about the tools you use to achieve the “soft textures” and the grasses in many of your landscapes. They are both abstract and realistic in the same moment. Please come to Colorado to give one of your classes!

    • dd_admin

      Sandy. I apologize for my late reply. Thank your for your encouraging response, Best, David

  4. Ruth MacIntosh

    Thank you David for bringing me to the light, I have been painting for many years and searching for the magic that stirs my soul and your work has done that.

  5. Denise Petit

    Another beautiful one! I love the way it feels so intimate, up close and personal, as they say. Beautiful!
    As Jodi said above, thank you so much for sharing your approach to your work. I love your results and so look forward to continuing my learning process in your classes.

    • dd_admin

      Vesna, Dankeschon. I would love to come if there were a group or institution to invite me. Best, David

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