Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Light and Evaluating Your Painting

Painting shot under 15 watt "full spectrum" lamp

Painting shot under 60 watt incandescent lamp

Painting scanned in a Canon MG5220
(closest to the way the painting should look!)

Light is both the blessing and the curse of the plein air painter.  It's a blessing, because it's the light that puts a beautiful glow on the world and prompts us to paint.  But it's also a curse, because it's the light that gives us trouble when we try to evaluate our works-in-progress.

In a previous post, I discussed having the proper lighting on your painting surface and palette when in the field.   But once you're back in the studio and inspecting your handiwork, you need the right lighting then, too.  So, what is the "right lighting"?

The wisdom that has been passed down from master to apprentice tells us to work by north light.  But north light, though consistent in quality and quantity of illumination, is too blue.  Any plein air painting that's predominantly warm will not have the warmth you thought it had, and if you adjust it under north light, it'll look right only under north light!  North light has a color temperature of around 7500°K.  No home displays work with that kind of light.  Incandescent lighting, a very yellow light, is around 3000°K.  Daylight, and daylight bulbs, are around 5500°K.  Museums may use bulbs that are in the 7000°K range with a CRI (color rendering index) of 100.

That's a pretty wide range to shoot for when you're trying to evaluate your paintings.  If you don't believe me, on an overcast day switch on an incandescent light in your living room and then compare the light outside with the light inside.  Your painter's eyes should show you how blue things looks outside and how orange things look inside.  Now look at the three photos at the top of the post to see how color temperature can change things.  (For the two camera photos, I used the same custom white balance setting for each, which was "fluorescent light" or  around 3500°K; for the scanned image I couldn't find out what the bulb temperature is, but my scanner usually gets the color pretty close to what I want.)

My best advice is to walk your painting around to different lighting situations in your house and see how it looks.  It's really impossible to adjust your painting perfectly for every lighting condition.   But I find that if a painting works in my living room, which has both natural, diffused light from the windows and incandescent lamps, the painting seems to work in most situations.


Mick Carney said...

Fascinating post Michael. Is there an argument for attempting to encourage a 'viewing standard' that artists could work towards and from that advise viewers as to the temperature the images should be viewed at. Or is the range of colour 'lives' that our works have another fascinating series of dimensions to them.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Good questions, Mick! Moving toward a 'viewing standard' is a great idea. But then again, the idea of having one painting wearing different 'light clothes' is interesting, too. Many galleries will, as part of the sales effort, dim the light on a painting to show how different - and yet still engaging - it can be.

Dave Casey said...

Interesting post. I've been thinking for awhile now that the next house my sweetie and I buy will have a space for me to paint with lots of north light. But now, I'm thinking that might be a misguided approach. I guess the thing to do would be to just find a space I can work with and then control the light with shades or drapes and interior lighting.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

My thoughts exactly, Dave!

Carolyn said...

Very interesting! I never knew about the light ratings. I notice when we have a bright sunny day and clouds pass by overhead (when I'm in the studio) that it bugs me like someone turned the lights low, so I wait for the cloud to pass to resume.