Yesterday, Edward Vincent of Sydney, Australia, wrote, “No matter what type of painting I do, my work looks infinitely better in half or reduced light. One wonders if they would be best in the dark! Is it the absence of half tones? Is it a general lowering of the key? Is it the absence of detail, or is the truth much more sinister?”
Thanks, Edward. There are several significant deceptions happening when you view your work in half-light. Like buying a car in a dark alley, you’re inclined to miss the flaws. You need to bring the vehicle to a well-lit area to make a wise decision. Problem is, self-deception helps us to feel good — temporarily — and often gives us courage to continue our folly.
On the other hand, half-light is much like the effect you get when you squint at your work. Things look softer and sometimes more artistic because details are subsumed by the big picture. While “sore thumbs” can stick out in half-light, many an admiring half-light look happens after some of the sore thumbs are healed. Unfortunately, squinting is merely part of the creative process — one’s efforts must also stand up to open eyes in the cold grey light of dawn.
Creative evolution requires that we face our faults. Human nature would have us avoid the distress. While all art is some sort of an illusion, it’s important that we creators not be deluded. Here are a few suggestions:
Invite yourself to look at work in all lights — including those under which the work will be viewed in galleries, homes or museums. For the studio, a progressive dimmer is a valuable tool. Be hard-nosed in your looking. Pay particular attention to mid-tones in a variety of lighting conditions. Do they hold up? — or do they disappear to chalky whites or deadly blacks? Note the recession and protrusions of colours. Often, slightly retouched compromises, grayed or in higher or lower key, will bring a work to life. Further, when viewing in full light, ask yourself if some edges might be somewhat softened — as they would be when seen in half-light. Above all, take every work for a walk — outdoors.
Many artists feel the need to have two sides to their being — one confident and energetic, the other diffident and critical. Split personality or not, to see the truth we need more light.
PS: “The easiest person to fool is yourself.” (Richard Feynman)
Esoterica: Many of us have had the experience of going into a darkened cabin or other murky place and noticing a particular print or painting that seems to exude wonder and mystery. Closer examination in proper lighting may reveal a more pedestrian work. Point is, we cannot rely on bad lighting to sustain our reputations. Sooner or later, people really take a look at the stuff.
Hard-wired to value and shape
by Richard Hawk, San Diego, CA, USA
I too have been known to indulge in turning down the lights and admiring the effect that ironically seems to turn up the volume in my work. Often I’ve thought that this phenomenon, of paintings looking better in half-light, is proof that we are hard-wired to respond first and foremost to value and shape. Does this stem from our earliest days as infants, when the world was composed of fuzzy, monochrome darks and lights? In any case, there is no doubt that good paintings are usually shape-based and have a strong and pleasing value pattern. Dim viewing conditions strip out detail and even color and let these essences shine through. On the other hand, when a painting does all that AND looks great in the harshest light, and at all viewing distances, it’s time to break out the champagne!
Lighting is key
by Donald Cadoret, Tiverton, RI, USA
As a painter and photographer for over 30 years, I have always been interested in the value of light and how it affects an image, both in the creation and viewing. In all cases, lighting is significant to the whole work and the typical gallery/museum lighting is not always the best way to view a work. It’s often too even and flat, and doesn’t represent real life conditions. And, although I agree with you that flaws can be hidden when the light is subdued, a diffused light might be exactly what you’re looking for. I can think of many masterpieces, Rembrandt especially, that are their most powerful in softer light. I don’t want to see the glare of varnish or paint strokes in every painting. I’ll leave that to the experts and conservators. I’ve always thought the best general lighting for an object was being outside on an overcast day. Sometimes all I want is to feel the image when I look at a painting. In that respect, lighting is key, dim or bright. That’s part of the experience, flaws and all.
by Mary Lapos, Danville, PA, USA
I have noticed that photographs and digital images of paintings tend to look better than what I see in real life. This is not just my own work. I’ve gone to galleries and been totally deflated by what’s hanging on the wall because I saw the image of the painting first. I know that color is enhanced through photographic representation and subsequent printing of a painting but, color aside, a photo of a painting looks better or more like the idea of a really professional work of art. Why is that?
Warped in changing light
by Carol Barber, Gainesville, FL, USA
In graduate school, I had a funny thing happen with half-light. I was usually working at night, in a dark basement with one light source. When I brought the paintings into the light for their critique, I was shocked at the colors. The subject matter was also about the atmospheric effects of dawn and dusk. These paintings will never be at home in the light of day but do evoke a feeling of mystery in the half-light.
Time-honoured methods of proofing
by Rodrica Tilley
Most photo editing programs let you view your digital shots of finished or almost completed paintings in “grey scale” or black and white. I find this very enlightening. It is the electronic equivalent of viewing work through red acetate, which some of you may remember being trained to do. Either method eliminates color and lets one see the strengths and weaknesses of value. And while you’re there you can rotate the work right, left, upside down or reverse (mirror image); another time-honored method of “proofing.” These digital shortcuts have become valuable, routine tools for me as I near the end of a painting.
Moods follow lighting conditions
by Stella Reinwald, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Perhaps some of what is happening is the softening of the critical mind in dim light. There is a kind of reflexive relaxation that takes place when the light is soft and/or dim. Observe how people entering a darkened museum assume hushed voices and a more composed demeanor, or how one’s mood shifts to one of reflection when the sun is setting. I think our moods become less high-key along with our vision, and maybe our perceptions are likewise affected; less light, less stimulation? Shadows become harder to interpret and are therefore more mysterious in a representational painting. I think some of the success of (some) abstract painting is that it can achieve this mystery in normal lighting conditions.
The scrutinizing eye
by Lorelle Miller, CA, USA
In the self-critique mode I try various techniques to refresh my eyes to shapes, values, composition. Most important of all, am I communicating? …does the painting read? Throughout the process I look backwards at my painting through a mirror, take digital photos of the painting in indirect daylight then display them on my computer monitor. It has always amazed me how glaring something can be when looked at in a different context. I try living with it by temporarily framing and hanging the painting on my living room wall, watching as the lighting changes throughout the day. How are we doing? Does it hold my interest? Is the design strong enough across the room? I twist, I stare, I put it away for a few days and then re-approach. This is part of the game, the development of the scrutinizing eye and forthcoming judgment. Having revealed any obvious problems I am blessed with the option to correct my errors. I try, as Richard Schmid had recommended in one of his books, to never leave anything knowingly incorrect on my canvas. It keeps me honest.
Artificial light produces glow
by Petra Voegtle, Denmark
My paintings on silk come to life only in full artificial light. It seems as if the pigments in the silk begin to glow. I already thought there is something wrong with my techniques as I always thought a work must stand on its own without the help of external means such as light. Now I am somewhat relieved. Since I am currently working rather with acrylics on cotton than with silk I have realized that the same effect clearly applies to my acrylic paintings as well. So I wonder whether this comes generally from painting with studio lights instead of working with natural daylight. Although I have good natural light in my studio I still prefer to paint with artificial light as this does not vary as much as daylight. I also think of the future place my paintings might hang and I am sure that they won’t be hung outdoors or always in a room with bright daylight. Another means works very well for me. In order to test the impact of my contrasts, I scan my painting and check with Photoshop (or any other program), whether my work can bear an increase or decrease in contrast. Of course this cannot replace the reality but it gives me a good means to check whether something is highly wrong or not.
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
As we know, squinting and viewing work in half-light is a good aid in determining whether all the parts of a painting are balanced and harmonious. It basically helps us see if everything is in place and if the relationships are working. Now, how to develop the skills to see what we have created in full-light and with open eyes? One way is to study the relationships in paintings done by the so-called masters, such as Diego Velazquez’s The Maids of Honor at the Prado in Madrid, or Jan Vermeer’s The Girl with a Red Hat at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The other way is to observe and take long looks at the visual relationships in our everyday surroundings.
The existing visual world we have around us has within it all of the balance and harmony we strive for in our paintings. Every shape and tone and color is VISUALLY in place. I am not talking about beauty or aesthetics as we normally would think about them. A messy room is as visually balanced as an orderly room. The visual world does not discriminate; it reports things as they are. The reflections and shapes and tones and colors in a vase of red-orange tulips are always where they should be, whether the tulips are arranged well or whether the vase is in an orderly or a messy environment. The visual world has its own built-in aesthetics. Everything is visually in balance and harmony and in place. To see it takes time and a separation from our preconceptions of order and beauty. Look at it everyday and over time, and gradually it saturates into your artist’s eye. As Eugene Delacroix said, “Seeing artistically does not happen automatically. We must cultivate our powers of observation.”
The harsh truth behind harsh light
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
When I was in art school and in my foundation year, we did a drawing exercise in the dark. The instructor had set up a series of screens and then projected a slide of a multi-coloured painting across all the screens. We spent the day in the dark working on our drawings. We were using all sorts of coloured pencils and felt-tipped markers. At about 3 in the afternoon, the lights came on and we sat there squinting at the light. What unraveled were a series of horrid and tragic drawings with huge gaps of colour, sloppy works and stuff you wouldn’t put under a bird cage, let alone call it art! Ever since then I have known that light is a crucial aspect to my work. I live in my studio which is well set up for me. I have five flood lights across my giant work table that at night must look like I have a Grow-op! I paint on a flat surface and every brush stroke is part of the equation of that I am trying to communicate in my art. The light is like a truth serum and if it doesn’t read right there, it sure isn’t going to read right on someone’s wall. I would say to any artist, make sure their work space is well lit, and that they have everything they need to make their voice heard. I also have my coffee pot close by which is a huge source of my inspiration.
Effects of light on colour
by Gerry Conley, Seattle, WA, USA
I have been shown by gallery operators “magical paintings” which change their appearance as the gallery lights are shifted from bright to dim and back again. So I was interested to learn in my studies not just that colors in a painting change their appearance with varying light intensity, but also that different colors change by different degrees as the viewing light intensity changes! This is true for any painting. But the person who sent you the inquiry about his paintings changing in half-light may have been experiencing a particularly wide swing because of the particular colors he was using accentuated the impact of the lighting change. Two of the other many surprises in my research were the discovery that we judge light to be white based on intensity not color. There are many different combinations of color that we will take to be white. I think one of the presumptions in your correspondent’s question of the impact of dimming a light is that he was seeing the painting in the same light frequencies dimmed as he was undimmed, only the intensity had changed. This is highly unlikely if he was using a dimmer device because a dimmer on an incandescent bulb changes the temperature of the light filament and we know that the color spectrum of a given heated body is a function of temperature. If you shop for studio lighting by getting the wave spectrum data for each lighting choice, you can see the significant differences that are inherent in the undimmed fixture; any change in light source will lead to a change in how a painting looks. As you say, we have to work to produce a product that will perform well in a range of lighting. Lastly, our sight is a poor color reading device because of biases built into how we read color. For example, a candle emits primarily red light but we read it as yellow because our perception system is biased to yellow; effectively we drop out the red and see the yellow. Similarly, we weight the frequencies so we will see a blue sky even when there is even more violet than blue hitting our retina because we are biased to see blue. But when the blue is backed down in intensity, we will then see the violet that was there all along, as at a time of sunset. These kinds of changes in perception are also triggered when we view a painting in varying intensities of light.
Searching out the flaws
by Caroline Simmill, Morayshire, Scotland
For much of my artistic career I was a watercolourist. My concerns at the time were to ensure that my materials were of artist’s quality and that the mount and frame were tidy, clean and did the best to enhance my painting. Life seemed so simple. Since becoming an oil painter I begin to learn there is so much more to take into consideration. I work using thin layers of paint and glazes to build up my minimalist paintings. I need to make sure before I begin that my canvas is well stretched and that there are no marks on the linen that will show through the paint. I have to constantly watch out for stray hairs that sometimes come off my paint brushes or clothing. I need to check that the paint covering the canvas is even throughout, that it has a nice finish to it. Finally before I even think about retouch varnish I look to see that my painting looks good in all lighting conditions. The cool blue morning light that we get here in the highlands of Scotland, the warm and soft afternoon light that flatters all paintings, the low light of dusk and finally the harsh electric light. When my paintings have passed these tests and I am completely happy then will I have the paintings framed and put forward to a gallery. I find that being truly self critical pays off well in the long run. Seeing the painting for its flaws and it’s very fine parts will allow me to make the necessary adjustments. It’s all part of the process of producing a professional job that is both satisfying to me and the potential buyer.
Enjoy the past comments below for Art in half-light…
Bear Creek Rapids
pastel painting, 16 x 20 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Ray Johnson of Aventura, FL, USA who wrote, “I find that using a full length mirror in my studio is the best critic I have. By looking at your painting with a completely different view is like looking at it with new eyes.”
And also Evie Wray of Luray, KS, USA who wrote, “A lover at a fine dinner is best shared by candlelight. Just as anything seductive, such as a sunset, turns on the senses and reveals an inner world. Dim the lights and the heart has a greater playground.”
And also Claudio Ghirardo of Mississauga, ON, Canada who wrote, “Use of full light is necessary to create a strong piece that one is inclined to study, spend time with and purchase for their own home. Art is seldom bought under half-light.”
And also Heather Lowe of Los Angeles, CA, USA who wrote, “When we look at a work of art in dim light we are not only blind to what is there (flaws, as you pointed out) but also we see what is not there. Our desire to fill the void causes us to imagine and complete.”
And also Lois Primeau of Huntington Woods, MI, USA who wrote, “It’s amazing what lighting can do to a painting or even the distance from where the painting is viewed. What looks fabulous up close can be easily lost as you step back.”
And also Mary Hart of Tustin, CA, USA who wrote, “Whatever our venue in life, we can see examples of your wisdom and reflection that can give insight into ourselves. Your work with others in art, certainly your sharing on the Internet, often reflects those hidden yet available morsels for personal reflection.”