Today I received a great question from one of my readers (and a previous student) asking for more details about what contra-jour means. Specifically, regarding what I said about bounce or fill light. Here is her question as I came to me:
Re contra-jour, you say the deal is to add a plausible bounce or fill light. I see how that would work, but my ? is do you “imagine” that light coming from a particular direction, i.e. down low or straight in AND how do you determine the warm/cool of the bounce if there is not some clear reference to where the fill light came from?
Diane from the alla prima workshop
First let us define a few terms:
1. ‘Contre Jour’ literally translates to ‘against the sky’ but as you will see the effect isn’t limited to placing a subject outdoors against the sky. At least, not any longer.
2. ‘Bounce Light’ originates from the world of photography. A bounce is created when the photographer places a large flat sheet or surface close in on the shadow side of a subject to send a little more light into the dark side. This is done to round out the form. In truth, a primary light source in a photograph or painting can originate from any direction. But in the case of contre-jour the source always originates from an angle behind the subject.
When you paint outside, from life, your primary light source is often a strong sun. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes your primary light source can be softened or veiled by clouds or a haze. Or the light source can be an artificial light at night. Or even a powerful bounce itself, like a strong blast of daylight reflected off a wall or similar structure — but without the source being present within the picture frame. (Diane, let’s ignore that last part as it may potentially confuse our fellow readers at this point and that idea deserves its own post…)
But essentially, before any environment can be considered contra-jour, there must have a dominant or primary light source illuminating the subject from behind. Everything else can be reduced to just more or less sophisticated detail.
3. A “bounce”, or fill light is a secondary or weaker light which is reflecting off a surface near the subject. Like that photographer’s sheet, a bounce throws a soft wash into the shadow region of your subject, and often that wash arrives somewhat tinted by the color of the surface it reflected off of. For example, in my Contre-Jour Roses from the previous post, there were a number of different colored bounces: One was tinged a cool red and it came off the bark dust below, and a second greenish bounce originated from the grass on either side of the rose bush.
4. There can be many sources of bounce light within a single painting — and be aware that any hue shift created by a bounce is usually stronger if that bounce is falling onto a neutral surface like skin tones or a white shirt. So a “bounce” can add beauty and complexity to the gray areas of your painting, whether it is done with subtlety, or cranked to the max by the artist. The French Impressionists pushed blue into their outdoor shadows because that’s what a fill light did when it came from a clean clear sky. Many Southern California Impressionists did something similar, but in a more amplified manner, because that regional light was far more intense than what was found in most of France — just as Sorolla’s Valencia beaches were . In Californian Impressionism, you can find the painter has inserted reds, greens, blues, purples, and even an orange into the shadow mass. All appearing next to each other.
This is a good example of contra jour, albeit with the primary light source, the sun, positioned just past the left shoulder. Sorolla presents us with an extremely harsh backlit situation and then sets the front of the figure into its own dark shadow. Now, note how the color of the beach reappears in the lower part of the gown as it inclines downwards towards the ground. Then note the strong yellow that appears along her left thigh. This informs the viewer there is something yellow on our right but out of the frame. Something which is bouncing the color into that particular plane. Also, note the passage of blue Sorolla has inserted into the area around her rib cage, where the woman’s bust begins to turn upwards towards the sky. This demonstrates how different incident angles add up to 90 degrees and throw different colored light back at the viewer. Even the white towel enveloping the young woman shows how bounce light can be used to inform the viewer what is concave or convex. None of the bounced color you see in this painting would actually appear intense, but the color relationships were there in a less saturated state Sorolla simply amp’ed them up to create a powerful painting. Which is why he could paint the effects of light like no other.
What is critical to understand… No, sorry, the best way to explain what a bounce is, and thus to see it in action — is to begin by looking at the colors around your subject. Then, anytime a plane of your subject and a surrounding color can create a 90 degree angle to your point of view (meaning, your eye) you will perceive a color-modified bounce on the subject’s plane. In the shadows.
But if all this sounds too complicated to think about as you paint just look for a hue-shift within the dark areas of your subject. Trust me. Now that you understand the elements of contra jour, you can recognize it instantly
Here are a few images to study. Ask yourself, are they contra jour or not?…
Now Diane, go and find some contra jour, and paint it!
If you are interested signing up my upcoming August ‘Essential Plein Air Techniques’ workshop, click here. There are only three spots left on a first-come, first serve basis, so don’t delay if you want to join the fun! Learn to paint en plein air with a knowledgeable and respectful teacher. This class will be limited to 12 participants to guarantee quality one-on-one time with the instructor.
UPDATE: Because sign-ups this year have been so quick I may offer a second workshop the following week, should there be enough interest. That will be decided after the first week closes.