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The Seduction of Light


As artists we love light…its constantly moving and changing qualities. We love its elusive nature, so difficult to capture as it has already changed the moment it is observed.

When painting in natural light, whether outside or by a window, the light changes continuously so that what you observed in the beginning is not the same by the time you finish. When painting a portrait in natural light the patterns of light will shift forcing the artist to decide when to make it indelible.

Light describes form. The way light falls on an object tells our brain much about it….whether an object is soft and furry, shiny metallic, textured or smooth.

An interesting aspect of light is its temperature. Before sunrise light has a strong blue color: 10,000 K. The cooler the light the higher the Kelvin number.

The morning light changes to warm red just as the sun rises and shadows begin to appear.

The temperature becomes more neutral toward midday which is why many artists take a siesta during this time. Overcast days bring cooler light with fewer shadows and softer colors.

At sunset light is warmer and redder with Kelvin temperatures in the 2000-2500K range.
At twilight we come full circle as the Kelvin temperature returns to 10,000K and the light is again very blue.

The best indoor light to paint in is light from a north window as it is cool and steady and does not change as fast as light from other directions. A painting that looks good in north light will look good under any light source.

One mistake many artists, even experienced artists make is to give too much attention to highlights and reflected light. A little goes a long way here and highlights are rarely really white. Reflected light which we see on the edges of shadowed areas is intriguing but it can be distracting and ruin the illusion of 3 dimensions when over-emphasized. Nothing on the shadow side of a face should be lighter than the darkest tone on the light side to preserve the illusion of form.

As artists we are magicians creating form on a flat surface. Often we cannot paint exactly what we see but we must paint what it takes to make the form look dimensional. That can mean subtle changes in color temperature rather than value. If the light is cool the form will look warmer as it turns away from the cool light source and so on.

Something wonderful I learned from Marvin Mattelson is that there is often more color in the shadows than in the light. Sunlight bleaches out color while shadows can be rich, vibrant, and deep. Never paint shadows black.

One of the great things about being an artist is that you can enjoy watching light no matter where you are. Natural light is best but even artificial light is interesting.

Go out there and observe. It is all about the Light!

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