Artist Profiles

Mastering the Art of Light in Paintings of Water

Mastering the Art of Light in Paintings of Water


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Glittering bits of reflected light on water elicit a sense of energy and peace in Deborah Quinn-Munson’s depictions of New England landscapes.

By Amy Leibrock

Don’t be surprised if you reach for your sunglasses when viewing Deborah Quinn-Munson’s luminous pastel paintings of water. “This will sound a little wacky,” says Quinn- Munson, “but I almost hope the viewer can hear and feel the water.”

Honing Her Passion

Quinn-Munson grew up around the beaches, rivers and lakes of New England. So she has a lifetime of experience observing, photographing and sketching water and how it behaves.

She gravitated to art at an early age, and her parents always supported her interest. Her father, who was in advertising, went so far as to make reproductions of her paintings for her to sell in galleries when she was a teenager.

At that time, it was the bold black-and-white abstract work of artists Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell that captivated her. “From that early point, I’ve always believed that no matter how representational a painting is, its success as a painting still boils down to an underlying abstract structure,” Quinn-Munson says.

After earning undergraduate and graduate art degrees, she went to work in commercial art. It wasn’t long, however, before she was painting full time, supplementing it with teaching.

Quinn-Munson picked up pastels when a friend asked her to do a portrait of her son to match portraits of other family members that were done by sidewalk artists over 30 years earlier. She instantly fell in love with the medium and has been working in pastel ever since. Now the artist splits her painting time between oil and pastel.

Start With Shape, Value and Color

One of the things that strengthens Quinn-Munson’s compositions is her ability to see the world according to shape, value and color, no matter the subject. Those three elements are what drive her to capture a scene. She’s developed an entire workshop curriculum around her method for using shape, value and color to achieve a balanced composition.

“Within the shape category, there’s a percentage of large shapes to small shapes that’s most pleasing to the eye,” she explains. “It’s the same in value and in color. When all of those are layered on top of one another and they’re all balanced in that certain way, it makes for a strong composition and painting.”

With shapes, for instance, Quinn-Munson likes an 80/20 mix of large to small shapes. “Or, conversely, you could have a composition with 80 percent small shapes and a few very large shapes to balance that out,” she says.

Building a Painting

After shapes, Quinn-Munson focuses on value. She teaches students to ask themselves if their painting is basically a light painting with a little bit of dark, or a dark painting with a little bit of light. Or, is it mostly a neutral painting? The same goes for color, or even other qualities like texture. The 80/20 percentage isn’t hard and fast. But she says if it dips down to 60/40, the drama of a painting dips as well.

“It takes a bit of time to understand the different layers,” she says. “Start out with shape, value and color. Break it apart, look at each one separately as you begin to build your painting.” It helps, she says, to apply this analysis to other work when visiting a museum or a gallery to train your eye.

Creative Energy

Quinn-Munson prefers to paint outdoors, where she must work more quickly to capture light and color before they change. “It helps keep things fresh and simplified,” she says. When she can’t work en plein air, she paints from photographs as a reminder of the sense of the place. More important, though, are her field sketches, in which she writes down the color combinations she plans to use.

For pastel paintings, Quinn-Munson works almost exclusively on UART 400 paper in a buff color. She has used oil or a pastel-and-alcohol wash in the past as an underpainting. A watercolor underpainting, however, is her current passion. She applies the washes energetically, standing up and making a mess. “Watercolor is magical when it hits the sanded paper,” she says. “It’s velvety and soft, and it drips and runs. I use it with lots of water and just let it run and blend. It’ll be varied a little bit, but I’ll usually cover the entire sheet with one coat.”

Exploring Value Range

While underpainting, Quinn-Munson’s main concern is getting the value right, because she likes to let some of the color show through in the finished piece. So, when that first layer of underpainting dries, she’ll often decide to add more darks, applying another layer or two.

Once that dries, she starts establishing her lightest lights and darkest darks with pastel, so she knows the value range within which she’ll be working. “In the sparkle paintings, I’ll allow for the lightest value to be the sparkle at the end, so I know that the areas of water where the sparkles will be placed need to be dark enough for the sparkles to show,” she says.

At this point, Quinn-Munson says she wishes she had more than two hands, because she likes to bring up different areas of the painting at the same time. She’ll give a little more attention to the focal point before she invests a lot of time elsewhere in the painting. She’ll move on to other areas and try to put in as many big shapes as she can, then move on to smaller shapes. As the painting progresses, her pace slows down until she’s not only making slower marks, but also taking more time between them.

Add Some Sparkle

Although the sparkles of reflected light on water may look like they’re pure white, Quinn-Munson paints them using a light yellow stick of Terry Ludwig pastel. “I’ve also found that other colors, like a pale blue or pale purple or pale pink, also can enhance sparkles,” she says.

She follows the surface of the water, making smaller strokes in the distance and larger ones in the foreground. “ The sparkles just seem to add more than light. They add energy,” the artist says.

From a technical point of view, the sparkles also become an important compositional element. While they look random and high-energy, Quinn-Munson places them purposefully. “After I put in a few, it becomes important to add one or two more marks here or there,” she says. “It’s funny how important one extra dot can be.”

Coming to the Finish

Quinn-Munson says she stops painting long before she actually thinks a piece is finished to avoid overworking. “I’ve learned over time to know when I need to stop,” she says. At this point, she’ll put it on the mantel for a day or two. If there are things that bother her, she’ll immediately take it down and resolve the problem areas.

“I allow myself about three marks at a time,” she says. “Then I’ll put it back on the mantel and ask myself: Can this painting be framed and hung? Can I visualize this in a gallery without making any more marks?”

The final marks she ends up making may look like they were dashed off quickly, but there’s a lot of thought behind them. “I’ll look at a painting for a long time before I go up to it and make a bold mark,” she says. “It needs to be a fairly simple stroke with a certain amount of confidence.”

Quinn-Munson is careful to avoid adding unnecessary elements—something she learned from studying the work of Kline. “Everything that’s in one of those abstract pieces needs to be there—for balance, for interest, for texture, for all sorts of things,” she says. “It’s that editing process that’s really important, because once you’ve put it in, sometimes it’s difficult to get rid of it.”

Serene Healing

Quinn-Munson has earned many honors for her pastel paintings over the years, but the one that means the most to her is having her work included in the collection at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. Seven of her paintings are part of its 700-piece collection designed to help patients cope with stress and facilitate healing.

“It’s been very rewarding and very moving,” she says. “I’ve gotten emails from patients and their family members who were sitting in a hospital waiting room looking at my painting and then took the time to write me to tell me what the painting meant to them—sitting there in an anxious moment, in a sad moment. It gives me chills.”

Quinn-Munson says she doesn’t intentionally seek out serenity in her paintings, but it comes through. “I love Cape Cod. I love the shoreline,” she says. “It is, by nature, peaceful and meditative, and evokes memories. Art is powerful in many ways.”


About the Artist

Chester, Conn., artist Deborah Quinn- Munson is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America, the Connecticut Pastel Society and the Pastel Painters Society of Cape Cod, and a Master Circle member of the International Association of Pastel Societies. She’s also a member of the Salmagundi Club in New York City and the Copley Society of Art in Boston. She earned a bachelor of fine arts from the University of New Hampshire, a master of arts and liberal studies from Wesleyan University, and has studied at Lyme Art Academy of Fine Arts and deCordova Museum School. Her career in art has included work as a commercial artist, potter, photographer and teacher. Her paintings have been recognized in the Pastel 100 Competition, featured in Artist’s Magazine, and is part of many private and corporate collections throughout the country.

Amy Leibrock is a freelance writer and editor. This article excerpt originally appeared in Pastel Journal magazine.


Watch the video: Preview. Mastering Composition from Photos: Landscape Painting with Ian Roberts (July 2022).


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