The almost-dark test


Dear Artist,

One evening when I was turning out the lights and shutting down my studio, I glanced in the darkness in the direction of my easel and had an alarming thought. I realized that all over the world, all kinds of regular people might be doing something similar. Before going to bed they might be casting their eyes around their homes to see that everything was okay. Some of those eyes might catch for a moment on one of my paintings. There are a few out and about.

As I looked back into my studio, I realized that paintings ought to work in the almost-dark as well as in the full light of galleries or on home walls. Almost-dark is similar to what we do when we half-close our eyes. Areas of incongruity pop out, spindly and weak elements beg to be strengthened, woolliness is exposed as major-woolly. You notice funny things in the almost-dark — odd things, ghostly things, apparitions, things that look like something else. That evening I made a mental inventory of what needed to be dealt with in the morning.

I’ve been doing it ever since. For some reason, I’m always able to remember my list. It kicks off the day. Sometimes the repairs are done before coffee.

Of course there are other useful devices to shake the mind and see things anew. These include mirror viewing, taking outside (or inside), sideways glances, upside-down, through binoculars backwards, through a glass darkly, through a glass of scotch, through gels or colour filters, through screen-doors, scrims or lace curtains. Kahlil Gibran, speaking both practically and philosophically, said: “I have sharp and penetrating vision because I see through the mesh of a sieve.”

A secondary easel is the greatest stage for this sort of creative reassessment. The “Caritas” easel relieves the pressure and obligations of the work easel. Caritas comes from a Greek word meaning to cherish, appreciate and give special attention to. Paintings on the caritas easel, temporarily framed, gain or lose power. When brought to the almost-dark the effect is magnified. Art comes out at night. Some art sneaks away in anguish and embarrassment — unable to face its own weaknesses. Fortunately, some art dances confidently into the wee hours, hopefully in other people’s homes as well.

Best regards,


PS: “The mind stands in the way of the eye.” (Arthur Stern)

Esoterica: “An artist,” said James McNeill Whistler, “is not paid for his labor, but for his vision.” An altered state of seeing can help an artist better define that vision. Looking back doesn’t necessarily bring on a sense of contentment. It’s one of the pro-tools that creators need in order to better understand what it is they’re up to. The idea is to seek out and kill the banal and ordinary. The idea is to find and honour the central motif. The idea is to make your vision stronger. “An artist,” says Tom Lynch, “is paid for his vision, not his reporting.”


Checked by the conscious mind
by Gail Siptak, Houston, TX, USA

Another effective tool is the sneak attack. Just as our environments become too familiar, so can our paintings. Coming back from an absence and entering the house, we see with a stranger’s eyes for just a few moments. It is a clear and delicious moment. Putting a painting in an unusual spot can do the same. The eyes see it freshly and the good and bad jump out. Less welcome is walking toward a mirror or reflective surface and at first not recognizing that odd person coming toward you. Not working from life causes my paintings to haunt my dreams and crouch just behind my thoughts. As they are products of my experience and my observations, they must be checked by my conscious mind for content, composition and clarity.


Low light and shrinking
by Kristen Steiniger, Round Rock, TX, USA

The almost-dark test is one that I’ve discovered, though I’m not sure I was completely conscious of what I was doing. I discovered that some of my paintings remain visually strong in low light and I wondered why. Usually, if I didn’t like it in the near-dark or out of the corner of my eye, I’d work on it more. But, for me, it was often a problem from the beginning with composition or color and I can’t save it. Some just never worked in any sort of light. Thanks to putting deliberate thought to what was taking place!

I also find it very helpful to shrink my paintings down by taking a picture of them digitally and then manipulating the size on my computer — all sorts of ‘issues’ come when you take a 16×20 image and reduce it to 2×3 or 4×5 inches. It’s wonderful.


Does it in the dark
by Sharon Fithian, DeLand, FL, USA

I turn out all the lights and work in the dark. I find that I can define lights and darks, cool and warm colors and bring drama into my work. I don’t think I have shared this with anyone except my husband who is also an artist — he now does the same.


Breaking the context
by Brian Jones, AZ, USA

Just like a lover, a painting looks different in the morning. I have become aware of a practice (I think we will all admit to) of trying to sneak up on my work. I do this to fight off the ‘morning after’ shock. It is interesting that what we are trying to change by this practice is our perceptive mode at the time. In the painting trance, negative judgment is suspended. Yes, we can see the areas of need and know when a stroke is weak instantly, but large judgments on the work’s overall value and completeness must be left for later. Usually, we do this at the conclusion of the day or the end game of a particular painting.

The larger lesson is that we ought to take ownership of our perception in all of life and admit that our intentions are bending what we see as real. A famous passage says, “seek and you will find.” I think we all are aware that what we dislike in others is often found in the mirror as well. Changing the context can help us to understand more clearly and break blind spots. After all, isn’t that why we travel and take vacations or holidays? By doing so we break the context of our lives.


Art thief method
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA


acrylic painting
by Gene Black

I call it the ‘art thief’ method. I turn off the light in my studio room and walk into the hallway. (I usually paint at night.) I sometimes grab a flashlight and play it over the surface of the painting. Then I say, “If I were an art thief would I steal this painting?” If the answer is yes then I sign it. If the answer is no or maybe, I either work on the obvious problem or let it sit a day or two and try the test again. I use my easel as a resting place more than I use it for painting. I tend to paint flat except for finishing touches or fine details that need to be upright. I also use test mats and framing “L”s to temporarily frame pieces on the easel. I find it interesting that as a largely self-taught artist, I discover methods for myself and then read books that describe ‘my’ method. This leads me to believe that the creative well is shared in some magical way.


Pulling the blinds
by Bren Nichols, Toronto, ON, Canada

I have used the ‘trick’ of darkness for some time. If it’s during the day, I’ll often close the blinds and shut off the light to get it as dark as possible to see my work in a ‘new light.’ After studying my painting in the dark, I’ll use a soft pastel stick and highlight or mark the areas on my painting that I want to change or emphasize — it works really well of course regarding light and shadows.


Turning, squinting, and giving it a rest
by Joe Jahn, Denmark


paintings hung in half light

I’ve been a professional painter for 25 years and I’ve only heard this theory put forth once before. And of course in the day to day hustle of production, theory goes out the window, but it’s great to be reminded of the importance of lighting in our efforts to do our best work. I use three of the points you mentioned — turning the painting on the easel, squinting and finally having the painting sit and rest on a side easel for a week or so to establish its strength, or its demise.


Taking a photo
by Sandra Butler, Troy, AL, USA

One of the best methods I use to see a painting in a different way is to take a photo of it and bring it up in photo software. I can place the painting side by side with the photo reference and even draw lines from one point to another to see if they match up correctly. I can also transpose the painting on the photo to see how accurate it is. Another thing I do is flip it horizontally (much like looking at it in a mirror) and I can also do a grey scale or a negative and get an altogether different view. I can also enlarge it to see fine details. I have often been amazed at how a painting I was satisfied with showed glaring errors.


Dimmer switch
by Elizabeth Allen, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Carolina Dawn”
limited edition archival print

I have a dimmer switch on the track lighting aimed at my easel and find that stepping back and raising or lowering the lights as I paint helps to clarify areas that need attention. I find the interplay of dark and light to be one of the most fascinating things in a work of art, so strive to create that in my own work. If I am able to achieve a sense of light and motion in a painting, I consider it to be a successful piece, and most often these are the pieces that find their way into the hearts and homes of others.



Visualizing the invisible
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

To paint is to release control of the mind. Surrendering to a part of my being that accesses energy unrestricted I find myself in the bliss of discovery. Recently I have been pushing the boundaries of creativity with each new work. Each work inspires a slightly new twist to bring to the next piece. I ran into two writers the other day having lunch. We got into this playful dialogue about one of them covering the Michael Jackson verdict for the New York Post. What struck me most delightfully was how creative and freely they used language to take our brief conversation to a level of limitless humor and possibility, making references and parallels spontaneously. I immediately related it to my current thoughts that are entreating a new abundant vision, a view of creativity as an expanding flow unbound. The writers’ playful antics validated the path I am welcoming, a path of playful musing with the fertile space of inspiration through informed trust. What I create then is ahead of where I was while creating previous paintings. I am not ‘reporting’ nor just ‘laboring’ — I am accessing to create anew. What is in the imagination is ahead of us. The task is to bring it into this earthly tangible realm to celebrate and uplift. What was once invisible becomes visual through the artist’s vision.


Stop simply reporting
by Angelika Ouellette, Calgary, AB, Canada

Your quote by Tom Lynch that an artist “is paid for his vision, not his reporting,” hit home hard. I realize that much of my work involves only reporting. In trying to feel the object, be it scenery or still life, I copy form and light trying to render it so others can read what I’ve seen, heck, so I can read what I’ve seen. When I am also deeply emotionally connected to what I observe, and paint from that depth, it translates itself into the image and I perceive it with ‘caritas,’ eyes half shut or open. Most of the time I’m simply hoping the object on the canvas looks like what I’m viewing. When I feel disconnected from self and the world, the work does not generate an inspiring vision — interesting.


Ideas like fireflies
by Linda Ewart, White Rock, BC, Canada


“Starlight on Opabin Plateau”
original painting
by Peter Ewart (1918-2001)

The “almost-dark test” could be applied to other things besides art. My father Peter Ewart loved the time when light was fading and would postpone the turning-on of the lights. He liked to carry on conversations at that time of day, in that setting, or sit in the “almost-dark” considering, also. Not looking for flaws or weaknesses, necessarily, but for useful memories or interesting thoughts. Ideas are a bit like fireflies at that time of day…



Falling out
by Phyllis Rutigliano, Englewood, NJ, USA

In the almost dark is something I thought was my own peculiarity. I came upon it accidentally one night and noticed how part of the day’s painting seemed to diminish or ‘fall out’ once most of the light was gone. When I strengthened the work the next day, it definitely looked better. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one.


Health problems affect vision
by Deena Welde Peschek, Windham, NH, USA

I have been a reporter, a journalist, for several decades, and I have been writing ever since I learned how to use a pencil and pen. Recently I entered the field of special education and have been exploring many creative interests… poetry and photography in particular. I know that I am an extremely sensitive person and I tend to be very visual. I hyper-focus on the world around me. It makes me ‘see’ things others seem not to notice, and after reading your letter, I wonder if that is where I connect to ‘vision.’ Perhaps I am more ‘artistic’ than I give myself credit for being. I find the analogy of the sieve interesting. I see the world from the sieve of a person with two chronic health conditions, and it has certainly had an affect on my vision of the world around me.


Dark test for photos
by Tina King, Ajax, ON, Canada


“Clematis in rain fall”
digitally enhanced photo
by Tina King

Your dark-test not only is applicable to paintings, but photographs as well. When I am working on my photographs in the digital darkroom of Adobe, sometimes it can be quite late. Photographs take on a different hue and perhaps, due to the loss of the daytime distractions, the evening allows the mind to open up further and to become totally connected.



Black and white translation
by Barbara Callow, Brentwood Bay, BC, Canada

Some time ago I happened to glance into my studio one night on my way to bed. I noticed that in the ‘almost dark’ the colours had been largely translated into black and white. I’ve since made a nightly journey into my darkened studio to sit on the contemplation couch and view my painting in progress. It helps me to check my values as well as assess strengths and weaknesses. By going to bed immediately after, I can often solve problems by visualizing in the before sleep stage.


Healing to be done
by Amanda Williams, Western Australia

I think I figured out why your letters are so popular — you get folks inspired to get moving — even me! I’ve been drowning in depression trying to find my way back from a failed transplant (I was the donor — it’s a tough call), when looking for something else I stumbled on the Painter’s Keys. Oh my! And here have I been squashing and squandering my misfit, outsider creativity on everything except art — ever driven to find an answer — and not knowing there are others out there just as nutty. Suddenly it all fits. And I feel I fit in.

Not one to sit around when there are things to be done, I have the local library working overtime bringing in books recommended here — everything from Susan Vreeland to Eckhart Tolle. My Amazon wish-list is growing with those not available here and my morning pages are filled with quotes from your Resource of Art Quotations. I’ve had the most enchanting emails coming and going while searching for a Viewcatcher down here and just yesterday ordered a copy of your book too. And I don’t even paint. They took away my brush when they discovered an innate ability in math.

I made a trip to the craft store to buy some paints just as Winston Churchill suggested and was so overwhelmed by the choices — I bought finger paints. My kids think I’ve lost it completely. But on reflection I think these are exactly right. There’s some healing to be done.


Nine areas of creative thinking
by Laury Ravenstein, Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada


“Moving Waters”
acrylic on canvas
by Laury Ravenstein

Last year I wrote to you saying that I was at an artistic impasse. I have painted and worked through a quagmire of creative thinking that had muddied my painting waters. Out of all the methods I have used to help myself, (workshops, books, fellow artists, taking some time away from painting, emotional examination) there has been one that explained the breakdown and opened the door for me. It may help others as well. It was a book on learning disorders that I read to help my youngest child. A Mind At A Time, by Dr. Mel Levine, explains many things, but the section on creative thinking was enlightening.

The nine areas of creative thinking must be working together to allow full expression and a positive creative experience. First, we must have divergent thinking, this is a willingness to freely associate and let your mind go off on interesting tangents. Second, we need to process the idea while relating it subjectively to ourselves. Third, a return to the naiveté, a willingness to take a fresh look or perspective. Fourth, we need to be risk takers. Fifth, we need to integrate our technical skills with originality. Sixth, we need to allow ourselves autonomy from peer standards and be prepared to deviate from accepted norms. Seventh, we must be willing to resist being too critical of ourselves while trying to be creative (my personal demon). Eighth, the pursuit of the right medium, a willingness to search for our personal creative channels. Ninth and last, a distinct style, allowing oneself to be unusual, to develop a unique voice.

Just knowing what areas one may struggle with takes the demons out of the dark and allows us to get a better handle on them. Let’s face it, few of us get a childhood that doesn’t damage some part of our spirit, but as we age, we can heal ourselves.


Freeing the eyes
by Joseph Tany, Alhama de Granada, Spain


oil on canvas
by Joseph Tan

Well, as I was exceedingly painting, doing one picture after the other while the sun was eventually turning down in that little light that was left, I was following the colors changing to yet facing that challenge and making the last before-darkness piece and then it came. Not much can be seen, but sensed yes. And so in that darkness, not seeing what color it was, nor where anything was at all, still sure where the painting was at least, then working in complete darkness now, no matter which color is which, if dark or bright, if matches or not, if fits — all rules are struggling to yet prevail, still I do go on as a blind man would. And just supplementing the natural sense of not knowing and yet acting straight forward. Would it be the occasional or full light which will tell if that work is any good, or would it be that walking through the darkness like that is a gate? Is a way to free the eyes? Is painting really a visual art?


Advice for the girls
by H. Margret, Santa Fe, NM, USA


“Cryptic Fusion”
acrylic on canvas
by H. Margret

While I was glad to see Sandy raise the issue of Camille Claudel, her story is a cautionary one for any female artist. She had a lot of breaks including a supportive father, and enjoyed many professional honors, but her neurosis over Rodin prevented her from 30 years of productive work! If she was a superior artist, her talent lost out to her alcoholism and destructive behavior. How sad! He worked on and became very famous while she flipped out and ended up locked away. Girls, keep your eyes on the ball!






In the Streets of Guanajuato

original painting
by Tom Dickson, Hornby Island, BC, Canada


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 Amber L. Lycan, Winchester, VA, USA who wrote, “Sometimes, the image became something else that was useful or playful; this might get incorporated in the ‘full light’ version. Sometimes I left just enough for low light viewing to suggest some other ‘life’ to the painting.”

Also Claire Bannerman, Santa Rosa Beach, FL, USA who wrote, “At our beach here in NW Florida we have the ‘blue hour’ when the heron seeks his nest and he is profiled against the fading sky — the almost dark.”

And Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA who wrote, “The second part of the half-light glance is not focused on the painting but on something else, so that the painting is registered into the subconscious mind, where all the good stuff happens.”

And Maya Telford who wrote, “I’m amazed that you were able to go to bed at all after noting what had to be ‘rearranged’ in your work, even if you did get at it before coffee the next morning. I can see myself up ’til daylight from now on.”

And Ruth Banarer who wrote, “I sometimes place an almost finished painting in a dark room facing a door to our hallway. Whenever I pass that door, I will suddenly turn on the light. At that instant the painting will tell me what I need to change — or if it is ready to be framed.”

And Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia who wrote, “Dilettante advice gives freshness.”

And Elaine Beaupre, San Juan Capistrano, California, USA who wrote, “You probably have no idea just how much light you bring into the life of an artist like myself.”

And Dave Lacey who wrote, “Semi darkness is a good judge and jury… except just before the bar closes!”

And Tricia who wrote, “Art is a gift to us all. I cannot imagine life without art.”

And also Bart Hellemans who wrote, “The glass of scotch will do fine, thanks for the tip.”





  1. I’ve used the dark studio test (as well as the mirror test and unfocused test) for years as a check on composition, and I’m sure I wrote about it back in ’05 when Robert wrote this.

  2. Ole Pathfinder on

    I am a late in life beginner. Now three years down the road I am doing work that i enjoy, but , like the man that does his own remodeling, I tend to know where all the warts are. I have a little private gallery in a back hallway where I hang many of the pieces I have done. I have to walk through that hallway to get to my studio. The passing glances at different times of day help me reflect on composition, shading, color, composition – and what changes I might make. And yes, sometimes a late evening stroll to the studio is revealing. Of course, I have the advantage on not worrying about selling anything.

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