Playing with light


Dear Artist,

While Nature Herself has the privilege of playing with light, painters must, in humility, play with pigment. The transference is tricky and many painters don’t play around enough to get the hang of it. Here again, the relationship between photography and painting is useful.

“Bokeh” is a corruption of the Japanese word Boke, which means “blur.” Backgrounds, particularly, are often rendered out of focus. You may be familiar with what are called “circles of confusion,” those round spots of light that occur in photos. Photographers spend some effort to get “good bokeh” as opposed to “bad bokeh.” Bad bokeh draws attention to itself — particularly “donut bokeh” with hollow centers that result from the use of mirror lenses. Painting Bokeh in the negative area — Swiss Cheese variety is commonplace these days — I do it myself. I’ve asked Andrew to put up a few annotated examples below.

“Fringing” is the fringes of light and colour around objects. In photography it’s often due to extreme magnification and the inability of some lenses to focus all colours of light on the same spot. This colour or light intrusion, when painted, can be arbitrary but is often a complementary of a local colour. Fringing adds a welcome and mysterious interest.

“Auras” are those intensified glows that form around and within objects — particularly when seen against the light. Bright red tree branches against a sunset are an example we are all familiar with. The nice thing about auras is that they operate in predictable, somewhat scientific ways. The tree aura mentioned above, for example, generally picks up its colour by sliding down the colour wheel from the colour of the light behind it. Thus an orange sky would yield a red aura.

“Dazzle” is the common state where light simply etches out detail. Difficult to do in traditional film photography, digital does it better by looking around and opening up to shadow areas. Painters can always add “truth” to their work by putting details into shadow rather than the lighter spots. Combining dazzle and aura requires the softening of transition zones. Simple blending goes a long way toward the painterly illusion of light. As always it’s a case of “commit and correct.” I’ve never met a painter who got the balance perfectly in the first go.

Best regards,


PS: “Ideas are to literature what light is to painting.” (Paul Bourget) “Light is a thing that cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else — by color.” (Paul Cezanne)

Esoterica: The last quote above (from our Resource of Art Quotations) is telling and valuable. Cezanne was practically never able to achieve a sense of light in his paintings. He tried, but he didn’t get it. Largely self taught, he never heard of “Slide up the colour wheel and add white” — the key process of “coming to light.” Instead, the faceted structure of his internal colour and mini-gradations achieved an inner form that resulted in his unique style. It’s yet another example of a nagging inability turning into a personal creative vision.


Playing with light


“Mystery Point, Lake of the Woods”
36 x 40 inches
acrylic on canvas
— a counterlit pattern which demonstrates a few ‘playing with light’ ideas.


Bokeh: of the Swiss Cheese variety as well as negative areas attempting to punch through lighter background in an interesting way.


Fringing: of rocks with greenish colour lifts, separates, and gives an odd ‘other worldly’ spin to standard subject matter.










Aura: Where light burns through from behind permeates silhouetted subject matter and creates, or at least suggests, the illusion of light.


Dazzle: While not particularly brightly lit, what light there is gives a believable opportunity to simplify — no point in painting every blade.


Reflected light: Underside of cloud picks up adjacent warm glow. Generally warm palette aids overall “last light” and warm feeling.







Up and down the confusion
by Kate Gray, Columbia, MO, USA


In this letter, Playing with Light, you mentioned: “Slide up the colour wheel and add white” — the key process of “coming to light.” Could you expand on that comment? I don’t understand what you mean by that.

(RG note) Thanks, Kate — and everybody else who wrote with this question. Ifyou think of the colour wheel as having yellow at the top and purple at the bottom — the up or down progression I’m talking about can move down and around on either side. For more on the subject of colour, see our quotes page.


Paint what floats your boat
by Gaye Adams, Sorrento, BC, Canada

I have always enjoyed painting light, and in fact find that I generally avoid tackling a subject matter that doesn’t have strong light or at least interesting light, because that is what juices me up. We all ought to paint what floats our individual boats, otherwise we run out of the energy needed to solve all the problems inherent in completing a painting. If we stick to painting that which makes our hearts beat a little faster, we continue to evolve as artists… mostly because it drives us into our studios and keeps us interested.

(RG note) Thanks, Gaye. From Subject – art quotations:

A critic asks: “And what, sir, is the subject matter of that painting?” — “The subject matter, my dear good fellow, is the light.” (Claude Monet)

See also quotations on the subject of Light.


The earth is our temple
by Kristi Bridgeman, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Temple Light, Cordova Bay”
acrylic painting
by Kristi Bridgeman

Canadian works are flavoured with dark under painting, negative painting, “Bokeh” and “Auras.” I loved the Group of Seven for this reason — even when I was a child, their work inspired a wonderful gut reaction. If I stand in front of a piece like this, it ellicits a rush of feelings, and perhaps even a chill — just as though I was out on that windy ridge. It isn’t just intense phosphorescent colours and underpainted snowy winter scenes — it is the ‘aura’ and ‘bokeh.’ The skeletal high contrast Canadian winters offer an abundance of material for trying these techniques.

I am inspired by a tree’s aura — as I take in the dappled views through the canopy my eyes water — these are the moments when I feel most connected. This earth is our temple. We would be wise to honour and protect it.


‘Eaten’ into existence
by Anne Swannell, Victoria, BC, Canada

I see that when you paint trees against water or sky, you often don’t actually paint trees as such: they seem to be “eaten” into existence by the sky or the water, which literally bites or nibbles chunks out of some previously-painted space until it looks like a tree. Can you talk more about this — do you paint a thing that’s roughly-shaped like the tree but bigger, and then have the sky or water “eat” into it until it’s the shape you want?

(RG note) Thanks, Ann. Right, in my case painting’s a constant set up for the execution of negative spaces. Objects, in other words, are “overshot” and “cut into.”


‘Bokeh’ techniques
by Tina King, Ajax, ON, Canada

In photography, the “Bokeh,” “Blur” or “Depth of Field” are terminologies used to describe the out-of-focus areas of an image projected by a camera lens. For example, in some images the background may be deliberately caused to be out-of-focus to reduce distractions and to emphasize the main subject.

Some lenses are thought to produce more pleasing out-of-focus areas that enhance the overall quality of the image. Bokeh is especially important for large-aperture lenses, macro lenses and long telephoto lenses because they are typically used with a narrow depth of field. Bokeh is also important for “portrait lenses” because the photographer would select a shallow depth of field (wide aperture) to have an out of focus background, to make the subject stand out.

This recent photo was taken with a 300 mm lens to create the “Bokeh” effect. In the digital darkroom, I could relive my forest experience, apply a watercolour effect to further enhance the out-of-focus areas, emphasizing each point of light as a disc.


Lens choice for reference gathering
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


“Self-Portrait on 4th St.”
oil painting, en plein air
by Coulter Watt

The reason painting steps away from photography is that the style of representation is at free will, as is the selection of color and the manner in which the paint is applied. This gives the painter supreme control of the image and imagination. That’s a wonderful gift, making paintings unique and a joy to create. When I see paintings that are obvious reproductions of photographs I’m not impressed, no matter how spectacular the image is, especially when the “compression” of the lens is so apparent. Compression comes from the optical squeezing of depth which occurs in the use of telephoto lenses. To avoid this in reference photos I suggest not using those lenses, as you will capture much more information with a normal lens.

Conversely, a wide angle lens will give the illusion of depth by squeezing left to right horizontal space, pushing the distant objects even farther away, while making the foreground subject object pull forward, and thus seem larger in relation to the background objects. While these are useful tools to have at one’s disposal, to avoid all these optical distortions physically move the camera closer or farther away from the object and use a “normal” lens. With a 35mm camera, a 35mm to 50mm lens will be the best choice.


Challenge and frustration
by Nick May, Grande Prairie, AB, Canada


“Northern Majestic”
original painting
by Nick May

Playing with light is the element of painting that I find the most challenging — second only to painting water. In nature there are all kinds of light effects going on in subtle degrees of intensity. I particularly love winter light. There is in my artistic eye a wonderful play of color and intensity. In my outdoor excursions I search these things out and get frustrated at my attempts to capture them.


Colour on the computer screen
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Coquitlam, BC, Canada


“Dawn at Coquitlam River”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Funny you should mention the play of light right now. I just ran into a book on the theories by Paul Signac. In the introduction, it mentions 3 ways of mixing colors — one by mixing pigments, one by mixing colored light, and the third used by neo-impressionists — mixing the light reflected from neighboring surfaces colored with pigment. I have never heard of any studies on this third way till now — and it makes so much sense. I always felt thick to the lectures of additive (TV) and subtractive (pigment) way of mixing colors because it just never occurred to me that they could (and should) be put to use together. They usually just go into a nitty-gritty detailed analysis of each way of mixing separately from the other. Which helped me understand that the method I select to view colors on my computer screen should be additive, based on yellow-magenta-cyan, and the method selected for printing the same image on the printer should be subtractive, based on yellow-red-blue (most computers have appropriate setup for both). However, the real meaning of the importance, and method of combining these theories escaped me till now (Dick Nelson’s tri-hue lectures are awesome in this area, though. If I was a better student, I probably should have grasped this). Hallelujah!


Living again in the light
by Schar Chappell, Auburn Hills, MI, USA

“Playing with light” brings to mind Andy Goldsworthy’s book Passages. He is asked to make a sculpture out of storm-fallen chestnut trees on someone’s property in France. He makes a rectangular form in the yard, cuts these logs into triangular wedges, lays them on a 45 within the rectangle, large circle in center have the logs placed at a 45 degree angle in the opposite direction, then the camera takes over and six photos are taken from the same position, early morn, mid morn, midday, early afternoon, late afternoon, evening. The trees capture the light as they once did standing tall as woods. They live again in the light.


Digital benefits
by Peter Ciccariello, Providence, RI, USA


digital reconstruction
by Peter Ciccariello

The digital camera with its high pixel resolution and the ability to immediately see the image that I have taken enables me to rapidly adjust exposure settings and experiment with light, space, and subject matter in a manner that was impossible until now. The nature of the pinhole optics creates images with unique depth of field and a pleasing, evocative, soft-focus glow. My experiments with various “trash lenses” in conjunction with a simple pinhole has led to a fascination with how light reflects and refracts, sometimes totally unexpectedly, through different materials.

The current direction of higher and higher mega-pixel resolution and image clarity in the world of contemporary photography is a direct antithesis to the more impressionistic approach of these images.

I have become fascinated with the concept of lenses or “windows” that are placed between the subject and the camera, between the object and the viewer, and between the viewer and the artist. How do these filter and distort the image? What effects occur when there are multiple “windows”? What happens when there are none? For me, the process is about a disconnect between the artist and the subject, and between the image and the viewer, and also about how distortion and the reprocessing of visual information affect this disconnect.


Whose stuck here?
by Janet Sellers, Monument, CO, USA

I must comment on Wolfgang Mueller’s letter in the last clickback. He really is the stuck one. As is common with those who only watch and don’t really do the work, he would like to have more to watch. But art and art making is not about entertaining people like him. Art is about a real person thinking real thoughts and putting themselves to action where they are, at the specific moment(s) of that energy moving through the artist. I remember wondering how the IChing moments of life wisdom could vary so, yet knowing that our lives are in a constant, beautiful state of change, the ancient wisdom rings clear: Nothing remains the same except change. We humans are mostly energy and will, and, apparently, we revisit meaningfulness in art. Artists grapple with the group consciousness of their societies versus their own level of wisdom, and for me therein lies the mystery of art and connectedness and consciousness. Not every person is avant garde. Some of us are wise enough to know where we are and be honest about appreciating it.

“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” (Robert Henri)


Listening to the heart
by Michael Carpenter, Victoria, BC, Canada

The many comments on the Sidney show illustrate the content and tone of a widely raging debate. The battle lines are drawn and the artists take their places: representational versus abstract, technique versus content, craft versus art. This debate tends to generate more heat than light, which is why I avoid it like the plague. Nonetheless, I have been reflecting on the nature of it (one of the great benefits of Painter’s Keys reflection).

For me, art is art to the extent that it teaches/allows/forces me to experience the world in new ways. I believe that this is independent of representation versus abstraction — it is a function of the artist’s vision and how she chooses to state it. It’s also a function of the viewer’s openness to the vision and of his willingness to reach inside himself to experience it fully. Some work requires more effort from the viewer to yield its full richness.

We live in an instant society. Bombarded by images and sound bites that are meant to achieve their full impact in less than 60 seconds, accessibility becomes the coin of the realm. This fills me with sadness for it suggests that those works of art that bare their souls slowly are in great danger.

Finally, why do we most frequently attribute technical proficiency to meticulously rendered, detailed representational works? Consider Picasso, Rothko, Van Gogh, Kitaj — do they not demonstrate technical mastery? I can’t help but wonder if works by some of these artists would make the cut at some of our modern shows.

As artists, I would hope that we would allow our hearts and our visions to speak to us first — they will tell us how they want to be expressed.

“There is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and the tired man who wants a book to read.” (G. K. Chesterton)

“My books are water, those of the great geniuses are wine. Fortunately, everyone drinks water.” (Mark Twain)

(RG note) Thanks, Michael. And thanks to all who wrote to one another and copied to us. Like religion, the subject will not soon be put to sleep.





Cook’s Garden

oil painting
by Kevin MacPherson, Taos, NM, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.

That includes Liz Reday who wrote, “You really got in there and put into words so many things I can see but can’t translate into English, a bit like translating music into perfume.”

And also Janet Toney who wrote, “I had an art teacher who explained his own painting for several minutes, and then he turned to me, grinned, and quietly said, ‘Like I thought of all that before I painted it!'”




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