Going for the Light


Dear Artist,

I used to know a photographer by the name of Roloff Beny. Roloff was responsible for a dozen big-format coffee table books. Persia, Bridge of Turquoise was well known, as well as his famous To Every Thing There is a Season. Roloff picked an area and went through it thoroughly. A friend of the Shah of Iran, he once took a red-carpeted year to travel that country in his Land Rover. Roloff generally arose before dawn and was already set up at first light. The midday sun found him asleep in the FWD. I never did figure out where or when his faithful driver slept. As evening and the “magic hour” approached, Roloff was back on the job. “As an artist you should be in business until the time when you almost can’t see,” he used to say. A few years ago he met an untimely end in his bathtub in Rome.


India, 1969
by Roloff Beny (1924 – 1984)

Here on Lake of the Woods, Ontario, I’m appreciating Roloff’s dictum. Being top-lit, midday subjects are often lacking in form. Foregrounds are difficult to separate from backgrounds. Shadows are short, sharp-edged and dull, often blackish in tone. But morning and evening shadows are long, often elegant and colour-saturated. Cast shadows make for better design and provide compositional connections. Reflected light is more readily apparent. In the darks, greater mystery can be found than at midday. There’s more opportunity for texture, counter-light, chiaroscuro, auras, edge-lighting and increased tonal range. Opposites on the colour wheel interact with greater hue and, therefore, drama. Also, forms tend to become generalized, which can help the artist to see the “big picture.” Furthermore, late and early skies take on energy and animation that seldom exist at midday. Philosophically, beginnings and endings are better than middles, and this may account for some of the appeal.


India, 1969
by Roloff Beny

Roloff Beny (1924-1984) learned to love evening light in the Greek islands. In his early days he was a painter. I once made the mistake of asking him when it was he changed from “artist” to “photographer.” “My photography is the greatest art,” he snapped. You had to watch yourself with Roloff. As I write this, it’s a moonless night and the main illumination is my laptop screen. Now, if we can just get our boat away from this precious island, out of this murky bay and home without hitting an underwater rock.

Best regards,


PS: “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” (Noel Coward)


India, 1969
by Roloff Beny

Esoterica: If you must work at midday, there are some tricks you can use. Calculated glazing or overall toning with warms (such as Burnt sienna, Cadmium orange or Quinacridone gold) or adding a purple passion to your palette can often modify works for the better. Ultramarine blue is another magic bullet. Afterthoughts can be convincing. Having said that, my experience has been that you learn the most and are most moved at sunup and sundown. When my work becomes uninteresting, it’s often just that I’m sleeping in too late or going to bed too early.

This letter was originally published as “Going for the Light” on May 28, 2004.

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“In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” (Sir Francis Bacon)



  1. “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” (Sir Francis Bacon)
    Don’t run from the dark- ever. It’s half of who you are. Seek instead an integration of opposite energies- a balance of the two. Within this balance/integration lies your cosmic- universal connection to the ONE. Find it. Open to it. Be it. And then create from it. While few may understand- you will know that YOUR understanding is present in your work. Some will get it. Most won’t. But you will know that as long as your work exists- from time to time an individual will come along and be transformed by their recognition that ONENESS radiates from your work. There is no larger goal- no greater pursuit.

    • Stunning, J Bruce Wilcox and I’m printing it out and pinning it where I can see it – for inspiration always and also for those times when despondency threatens.
      For Yes! – that’s what it’s all about surely – if one person resonates with a painting (or something you’ve written or any work of art you’ve created) that makes it all worthwhile and is a joy in itself. I paint prolifically (trying to catch up with Picasso!) and sell them for a song online – but the pleasure when someone loves one is immense.

    • I love what you wrote. In all my sea/water paintings, I would like to think I could show the oneness of all. I read somewhere, we are not just the drop of water, (in the ocean) we are in oneness the ocean. I think I related this not as clearly as original quote. But, thank you for your writings.

  2. This is such timely advice for my plans to do more plein air painting. In the past, it has usually been midday that I am out painting. With Robert’s re-post, I will change that and I’m almost drooling at the mouth in anticipation of the more exciting opportunities that will be offered. Thanks for sharing, Sara.

  3. I had a lot of respect for Beny until the day he was asked why he never photographed Canada. His reply was that there was no character to a country where nothing had ever happened. There was no history here & nothing of interest to photograph.

    I was astonished how this subsequently affected my appreciation of his work. His belief that we had no history, mystique or character struck me as uninformed, prejudiced & arrogant. It’s simpler to take formidable shots of ruins in the morning mists of the Bosphorus than to comb the ancient digs & sacred sites of the New World.

    Civilizations have left mysterious traces here from thousands of years ago, not to speak of a multitude of Indigenous civilizations. It pays any artist to do the groundwork, to learn the history, to understand the foundation of their work.

    I could have accepted him saying “That would be too much work.” far more easily & humorously.

  4. Virgnia Urani on

    Love this! Like many others I have usually worked in the middle of the day … often plein air classes take place at that time. I couldn’t understand why everything looked flat to me and thought it was my inability to see values. And, I’ve always love the light in October when there are wonderful lights and darks and shadows. Thank you, Sara for sharing this letter.

  5. Mary Manning on

    The Golden hour, magic light spreading for an hour or two after sunrise and before sunset. Learning this rule in photography class, it applies tenfold to plein aire painting. Some of the most spectacular light, shadows, hues and values come at these times. Thank you, Sara, for posting this wonderful column!

  6. Thank you Sara. This post is very useful, as usual. I’m preparing to teach a basic drawing class and will spend more time on light in general. Even though there is no color involved, the light is so important to define shape and form.

  7. as a mom, i recall Tolkien’s take on it , in the poem song “Light and Shadow” and his way of telling us in his story, that “it’s all good” as our merry fellowship with hearts true and strong, follow the road they must take for success….the sunny and beautiful days and the horrid “deep dark dirt disgusting dungeon’ places… :-) There is beauty and healing and insights in all places and moments. Yes…thank you as always Sara – AWS show in NYC – on my way and finally finally getting to help TAAF the aneurysm foundation – helping in the matter that took my late husband too soon and suddenly…. I donated three small artworks and doing a big 50/50 show in September for the causes – mine and theirs – in Hartford. Details on request. Wish me luck. I have lots of experience in these but will get help.


  8. We must not forget that often exploring two sides of an issue can elevate both. The flatness of high noon perhaps makes us concentrate a touch more on design, line, value. Nuance is fine as in the multitude of subtle shades in a “gray” shadow but a flatly presented image offers many other avenues for exploration. Hmmmm, sorry to hear of Roloff’s disdain for boring old Canada!

  9. sandra kessler on

    I worked for a time at the Universtiy of Lethbridge. Rolof Beny had some of his photography was hung in the hallays. I think his family was in Lethbridge – there was a business called Beny Motors – I think they sold cars.

    I did a review of your Dad’s work in the 80’s for the Kelowna Courier. I am also an artist and your father was an inspiration.

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