Light and shade


Dear Artist,

Just below where we live in Crescent Beach, B. C., there’s a fine public marina. I’ve been wandering down there for years. Some of the locals occasionally drop by to see what I’m up to. One day an unknown passerby paused to ask me if this were my day off work.


Robert Genn at the Marina, 2010,
painting in his 1926 Austin 7 Chummy
while Dorothy the Airedale keeps watch.

More recently, a more evolved watcher asked, “What is it with you guys about boats propped up on land?” I told him that down here they keep moving things around, especially during the fall and spring, and different relationships are often seen, so the light and shade are a challenge.

While this system might not float everyone’s boat, I find it best to rough in general shapes and patterns early on, while keeping only a partial eye on the eventual lay of the light. In other words, the strongest light areas go in at about the half-way stage of the painting. Adjusting the right tones for light and shade can be tricky and if you commit yourself too early, things can get pasty or, worse still, murky.


Boats at the Marina, 2010
acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 inches
by Robert Genn (1936-2014)

I look for light patterns that are of unusual shapes, big and small, with abstract potential. Making up this pattern is important, but it’s also an opportunity to change a few of the local, impinging colours. Having brushed paint on our own boats a few times, I can tell you it’s a darn sight easier to change the colour of a boat on canvas. The bottom coats in my subjects this day were green. Lead oxide seemed a better choice. Better for barnacles, too.

It’s also a good idea to overdazzle your lights, even softening the edges of the bright parts so the light glows. Leave the details, complexities and nuances to the shadows. The rule here is “Light burns out detail.”

Finessing a more or less correct but often subtle relationship between light and shade is one of the tough orders. A valuable idea is “look three times, think twice, paint once.” The acrylic medium permits endless corrections, rethinks and resurrections. I figure if you can get the tonal and colour relationships within ten percent of reality you’re doing well. It’s all an illusion, but a fresh, confident-looking light-and-shade gives joy to your sortie.

Robert-Genn_Fousnant-contraluz-2_acrylic-on-canvas-laid-on-board_l0 x 12

Fousnant Contraluz 2, 1987
acrylic on canvas laid on board
12 x 10 inches
by Robert Genn

Best regards,


PS: “Of the original phenomena, light is the most enthralling.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Esoterica: If you want to better understand the nuances of light and shade, study the work of Joaquin Sorolla. “Let there be no mincing of comparisons,” said James G. Huneker, “not Turner, not Monet, painted so directly blinding shafts of sunlight as has this Spaniard.” Down by the boats and beaches of Andalusia, working mainly in the Magic Hour when lights were warm and shadows were cool, Sorolla paid close attention to reflected light bouncing around in the shadows. How does one achieve this deadly eye? Practicar. (Practice)

This letter was originally published as “Light and shade” on November 2, 2010.

The exhibition Robert Genn: A Lifetime of Painting continues at Madrona Gallery in Victoria, B.C., Canada until February 2, 2019.


“Nature, the sun itself, produces color effects… instantaneously. The impression of these evanescent visions is what we make desperate attempts to catch and fix by any means at hand. At such moments I am unconscious of materials, of style, of rules, of everything that intervenes between my perception and the object or idea perceived.” (Joaquin Sorolla)