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Monday, October 4, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: contre-jour

Contre-jour is a great effect for figure and landscape painting, but you can practice it in still life.

Tête-à-tête, by Carol L. Douglas, long since gone to its new home.

Contre-jour is French for ‘against daylight’ and it simply means a back-lit subject. The viewer is looking towards the light. When the sun is low, contre-jour results in silhouetting, as with a sunset. However, when the light source is high but still behind the subject, contre-jour can create wonderful rim lighting with prismatic color effects. Contra-jour minimizes details, increases contrast, and emphasizes simple shapes. It casts shadows forward, and these shadows are often as interesting as the subject itself.

The human eye has a much better response to wide ranges in lighting than does a camera lens. Our eyes adjust constantly to shifts in lighting, and our brains interpret this data on the fly. If, say, we’re in Rosslyn Chapel attempting to spy out the Green Man in the murky light above our heads, we have no trouble also seeing the well-lighted docent who’s giving the tour. It’s only in extreme lighting shifts that the eye and brain need time to catch up.

Sunset sail, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art. A sunset is an extreme example of contre-jour painting.

A camera (at least to date) hasn’t got this flexibility. Photos tend to be too dark in the dark passages or too light in the light passages. That’s not just an aesthetic problem; they simply don’t record data in those places, so there’s no fixing the problem in Photoshop.

That’s why it’s important to practice contre-jour in real life, not from photos. A photograph sets the relative light levels, and you’ll have a hard time overriding what you see, even if you’ve taken multiple exposures.

La repasseuse à contre-jour, 1874-1878, Edgar Degas, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, that same inflexibility sometimes makes cameras better for recording images in silhouette, like sunsets. The camera doesn’t try to insert information that isn’t there. The most common error in painting sunsets is putting color in the foreground. That’s the brain telling the artist, “trees are green,” when all the visual evidence is to the contrary.

Contre-jour is a wonderful technique in figure painting, as it creates an aura of privacy and anonymity. I’ve included one example by Edgar Degas, but he used it repeatedly, creating a sense of dignity for his laborers, ballerinas, and bathing women. Contre-jour is also very effective in landscape painting, but if you can’t get out to paint en plein air right now, practice it with still life.

To paint contre-jour effectively, one must carefully attend to color. Take the time to check values and record them in the form of a sketch, because contra-jour lighting effects change more quickly than spotlighted scenes. That’s particularly true in the structure, shape, and density of shadows.

Belfast harbor, 14x18, Carol L. Douglas, $1275 unframed.

Value is obviously important, but so too are the subtle shifts in hue and chroma that tell you an object is in shadow. Except for extreme silhouette, backlit subjects are never uniformly dark. They catch rim light and reflected light.

Almost all scenes will include some translucent or transparent objects like flowers, glassware, and fabric. These let light through, and when placed in front of a dark background, they stand out. Your contra-jour still life can look very different in daylight than it does at night, so it might take some adjusting.

Don’t underestimate the power of shadows; they’re often the best part of a contra-jour scene. They can transform the often-neglected bottom of your canvas from predictable to riotous. For example, try shining a light through a vase of flowers and note the lovely shadows dancing across your table.

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