Light and the Painter’s Studio

The studio of Francis Bacon
When we think of a  painter’s studio we imagine a space filled with an abundance of all kinds of materials: essential tools for the creative mind. Paints and brushes, easels, canvasses, sketches, computers, curiosities and much more, all arranged to suit the painter’s needs and method.
Of the same importance is the studio’s lighting.
I clearly remember from my study at the State Academy in Amsterdam (in it’s original building) the huge difference in light-temperature between the class-rooms. My first year was in warm sunshine flooding in through big windows situated in a south-west wall. Moving on further with my studies meant moving up into the professional studios situated in the northern part of the building. The years spent here are dominated by the cool, grey light coming in through huge windows. Flat northern light causing flat colours, colouring our palettes, painting(s) and energy.
The available light in which art works are created has a profound and underestimated effect on every painter’s work.

Bacon’s studio, or rather his cage as depicted above, receives concentrated light from a high and narrow roof window fixed overhead in brown wood.

Johannes Vermeer ( 1632 – 1675)

A huge difference with the organised and richly decorated studio depicted by Vermeer around 1667, lighted by a window to the painter’s left side. For a right handed person the ideal position to avoid the disturbance of casting shadows while working the canvas. When we observe the intensity of the entering light it is clear that the lower part of the window is covered by a panel to enhance contrasts of the model and the scene. The situation is comparable with the studio painted by Jan Miense Molenaar around the same period, where only the top of the window, on the left, is uncovered.

Jan Miense Molenaar ( ca 1610 – 1668)
 
Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) France
The photo with Picasso posing in his studio next to a newly finished painting resembles Vermeer’s, with the controlled daylight entering from the left.
Picasso has used the powerful, abstract effects of the strong sunlight of a French summer in his work, creating bright squares in shady rooms.
Reliable light is essential when painting indoors. Overcast skies and the position of the sun alter the quality of daylight and make it, at various times, impossible to continue painting. Just as happened today, when I started writing this blog, heavy overcast skies turned my studio into a gloomy space.

In the past, artificial light like candles and oil-lamps were not a solution because the yellowish light distorts the original colours of paints. With the 20th century invention of the so called daylight fluorescent tube lighting, and the modern LED, lamps could be used to replace natural daylight.
Personally, and for many of my colleagues, no lamp can replace the vividness of natural light.

Out of doors

Willem Roelofsz (1822-1879) painting  a cool Dutch summer
The ultimate daylight painting method is, of course, done outdoors. 
Each landscape presents it’s specific energies, light, and colour-temperature. 
Confronted by an ever changing atmosphere enforces intense observation and quick, direct work. A passing cloud, the slow but steady movement of the sun, constantly alter the subject. This is ‘no bullshit’ painting at its finest. 
Struggling with winds, heat or cold, with aching shoulders and back, and limited tools; or sore eyes and so called snow blindness caused by looking too long at a sun blazed white canvas. Exactly as happened to Van Gogh during his outdoors painting sessions. 

John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) painting the Alps
David Roberts (1796 – 18640), painting ruins in Egypt
Based on this richness and variation in light a painter makes a choice of the colours and paints she or he thinks will be the best to translate an image, an idea into two-dimensions. It is an essential part of the finished work of art.

Thus, when visiting a museum where the atmosphere is strictly controlled to protect the art on show, we don’t see and  experience the works as intended by their creators. Sunlight is banned, the light, the colouring of the walls, the height of the ceiling, the size of the room, are all different than the artist’s studio and the original place for hanging.
Another factor, especially in popular museums, is that you are never on your own.

 Rembrandt’s ‘Nightwatch’ in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Works of art in museums are always out of context. They have lost their intended function, and meaning, and are mixed together with other works of the same period or other eras, according to the opinions and preferences of the curators.

Reconstruction of Rembrandt’s studio in the Rembrandt-house in Amsterdam

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Colour and Theories


Colour Theory  versus  Painting Practice

 

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What is colour? 

A simple question that is so very difficult to answer. Colour is light, colour is mood, structure, matter, elusive…..many theories  offer a range of explanations. This range of explanations are the cause of deep misunderstandings when it comes to colour as matter.
I remember vividly an incomprehensible event during drawing lessons when I was at Primary School. The teacher had told us about light, the rainbow, about colours,  their names and how to mix them to create new ones. And, a miracle, how a mixture of all the bright colours turned into white! Well, I tried hard but after an hour working my colour-pencils I never got anything other then a drab brown. And no explanation from my teacher.

Here we encounter one of the big pitfalls in the thinking about colour: colour is light but paint is matter. White light is the sum of 7 bright colours but white paint is not made by mixing these 7 colours. Nevertheless, this unworkable theory for painting is still taught at schools and universities today as an integral part of colour in art. But the artist’s colour systems and schemes are based on other principles and characteristics. On opaque versus transparent, warm versus cool, dark versus light, complemented with the interactions of various groups of colours. In western thinking known as primary and secondary colours.

Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) prism on top of his manuscript on the properties of light.
Photo Lessing Images
Therefore, using colour as paint requires a different approach.
Firstly, the three so-called primary colours don’t exist as such. These colours offered in basic sets of paint are also not the base for mixing ‘all’ colours, as suggested. More than once I have heard a customer in an art supply shop inquire about these basic sets, whether they would provide the whole range of mixed colours. They would get the answer ‘yes’ ……………….this scenario takes me back to my fruitless struggles with the colour pencils.
A basic set like the one below is a nightmare to work with because these colours don’t work together. The only possible mixture to be made with this particular set is a rather opaque orange. Other combinations will turn out dull or brownish.
The reason is it’s lack of cool colours, which leads us to the often underestimated effect of the Temperature of Colour.
Basic paint set, with mostly warm and too opaque colours

 

Warm Blue and Cool Red

 Knowing the temperature of colour is an essential part in the handling of one’s palette. 

 

The art-historic interpretation of a colour-wheel, however, useless in painting

For anyone working with paints and inks, a workable set of primary colours contains a warm and cool variety of each colour. The colour wheel above is used on a website by a blogging art-historian explaining it’s use in painting to create perspective by using cold colours, the blues, in the back-ground. Hence it’s division in cold and warm colours. This highly popular theory is based on the misunderstanding that blue is cold and red and yellow are warm.  Anyone familiar with paint knows differently.  The vibrant warm ultramarines, the cold reds and  yellows, and warm and cool emeralds do not fit into this theoretical thinking. Ergo, this colour wheel is useless as a tool to understand the temperature of colour in paint, in matter.

Talking paint the wheel is divided  as seen below, with warm and cool (cold)  distributed in both sections. I prefer to add the neutral colours which are neither specifically warm or cool(cold), like the original cobalt blue or a regular yellow ochre.
In colour wheels like this one the broad range of natural earth-colours is absent, although they are the backbone of painting.

As well are black and white, which for a painter are not the simple two (non-)colours as generally presented, but who in itself cover a wide range from warm to cool.    

   

The colour-wheel as seen by painters.
To make the matter even more complicated, each colour is defined by surrounding colours. Thus a cold blue indigo seems warmer when it’s neighbour is the even colder Prussian blue. This effect is called the relative colour temperature.

 

  Temperature and Meaning 

Colour temperature in it’s original historic sense plays an essential part in the use of pigments and dyes throughout history.
The temperature of a colour had (and still has)  a symbolic value and played an important role in signalling the good or the evil.
As an example we can look at the temperatures of two historic blue pigments, lapis lazuli ultramarine and indigo which were both available in southern Eurasia. The first is in it’s purest form a brilliant, vibrating warm blue, the second a deep, cold night-blue. Both were associated with the powers beyond, ultramarine with the heavenly powers, indigo with those connected to the darkness of after-life and the underworld, with grieve. Each was used in this specific way to emphasize the role and meaning of the deities depicted.

Dürer’s (1471-1528) unfinished Christ and the slightly older 14th century Tibetan Buddha share the  warm blue as the symbol of divine, positive power. The Tibetan creator of the Buddha lived much closer to the source of the rare and extremely expensive lapis lazuli then Dürer, which explains why Dürer modelled Christ’s tunic first with the slightly cooler, more available and cheaper, azurite before he would finish with a glacis of lazurite, the purest ultramarine.

These two works of art show us as well that the availability of  pigments determines the possibilities of it’s creators. Uncountable are the Buddha’s and Christ’s which have to do with lesser or substitute colours and pigments. Or even completely lack colour due to the poverty of the community they were made for.

Summarizing, understanding the temperature of colours in painting is much more complicated than cutting a colour-wheel in half.      
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Van Gogh Blues


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Imagine….a world without blue pigments. Not just blue paints but also dyes, the colourants for textiles and leather, inks and plastics. Leaving the sky above our heads as the only large blue surface in sight, in summer accompanied by the short-lived flowers of fields and mountains.
For thousands of years this was the actual situation.
Strong, warm and bright blue pigments were rare, with lapis lazuli as the ultimate, most revered and exclusive exception.
A painting like Van Gogh’s Dr Gachet from 1890, with its abundant use of blue and red, would have been a phenomenon. Displaying colours and pigments normally reserved for the religious and worldly elite.

The 19th century was an exceptional age having an unprecedented effect on the use and possibilities of colour and paint with France, and in particular Paris, as the driving forces.
Napoleon’s hunger for territory and power resulted in almost endless processions from every corner of the new Empire to it’s capital, Paris, transporting artworks to what later would become the Musée du Louvre.

Napoleon is considering an Egyptian mummy for his collections, ca. 1800.

This art-flood had it’s consequences. Many art-works were damaged during the often long transports and needed restoration before being displayed. To this purpose the French government installed in 1794 a Conservatoire du Muséum des Arts. The demand for historic and rare blue pigments, like lapis lazuli and azurite, gave birth to the development of new pigments that changed the painters palette and finally brought an end to the scarcity of bright blue paints.

Cobalt-blue was developed by Thénard around 1802, followed by ultramarine, the long sought for replacement of lapis lazuli, in 1828 by Guimet.

Cobalt-blue was and still is relatively expensive (cheap cobalt is not the real thing!), but ultramarine turned out to be a rather economic pigment. The cheapest varieties were used as whiteners for laundry, of which Reckitt’s Blue is one of the best known. The latter is an ideal substitute for painters lacking resources to buy proper pigments, like the young Van Gogh, who even used coffee grounds to make his brown paints. 

Van Gogh ‘The poor and the money’, 1882, mixed media on paper

Van Gogh considered cobalt-blue to be une couleur divine, a divine colour, ideal for suggesting space in the restricted two-dimensions of a canvas. The portrait of Dr. Gachet is a beautiful example of his love for an abundant use of cobalt, indirectly made possible thanks to the expeditions of Napoleon.

Le Docteur Paul Gachet, 1890, 68 x 57 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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Van Gogh’s faded colours

Van Gogh’s Paint

  A lost battle between Colour & Time?

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Flowers, wheat-fields, starry nights and colourful portraits, some of the words associated with the famous painter’s work. Paintings with surfaces that reflect the intensity, concentrated haste, and often rising frustration, in which they were  painted.
We know Van Gogh (1853-1890) as a colourist, a painter who took full advantage of the new possibilities  offered in the field of paint and colour by the Industrial Revolution. Innovations that swept like a tsunami first through the western world and then flooded the rest of the globe. The new pigments with strong reds, yellows, greens and blues allowed for a broader and more effective use of colour-theories. Colours which were until then either too rare and expensive, or just not existent, like warm blues, strong, clear greens and solid yellows. A situation which is now difficult to imagine living in a modern world with our daily and unlimited access to thousands of colours.

The interaction of colour is one of van Gogh’s main tools. Strategically placing primary and secondary colours, opposing cool and warm, and using structure to enhance or to break the intensity of a hue. The complexity of this thinking should be visible and give us better understanding of his approach and goal, and writing. How his works were meant to be. Unfortunately many of the newly available pigments Van Gogh (and his colleagues) used, turned out to be unstable. Some drastically unstable. The consequence is that the slow disintegration of the colours is unstoppable, even in the strictly controlled circumstances in the museums.

In 1913, 23 years after Van Gogh’s death, Charles Moreau-Gauthier published the book La peinture. Les divers procédés in which he included examples of discolouration in modern paints. Discolouration caused by exposure to light. The effect on some colours is quite disastrous. Chrome yellows turn brown (the brown dots in the painting at the top)  and some red lakes completely disappear. Unfortunately these were two of van Gogh’s popular paints, playing an important part in his balanced colours-schemes. The impact on how Van Gogh’s work has survived is big. The combination of unstable pigments, destroying varnishes, thin grounds, haste and transports, have altered the canvases irreversibly.
But thanks to the Digital Revolution we can try and undo some of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Using natural and conservation science and original pigments, in combination with my experience as a painter and colourist, I have developed a method to recreate van Gogh’s palettes. These palettes provide the base of a digital reconstruction of which the Metropolitan’s ‘Irisses’ can be seen here.

The painting in it’s actual state. 
Van Gogh describes the irisses in his letter from May 11, 1890 as

‘…de grands bouquets de fleurs d’Iris violets, les unes contre un fond rose où l’effet est harmonieux et doux par la combinaison des verts, roses, violets….’

  There is no mentioning of white, blue and brown. The result based on the remade palette with violets, red, yellow and warm greens, alters the painting considerably, showing the harmony Van Gogh describes in his letter.
This partial digital reconstruction is an example of the importance of the material side of an art work. How the knowledge and understanding of the colours handled by the artist to transform an idea into matter, changes our perception.

my partial reconstruction of background and bouquet (monicaR all rights reserved 2015)

The reconstructed  paint on a linen surface. It is a clear example of the gap between paint, print and pixels, which can be so misleading when looking at reproductions.
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Paint & Pixels, the battle

Discolouration and the Public Eye

 

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) The finding of Moses, 1651, 116 x 175 cm.,
oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.                 Photo by author

An idyllic representation of the finding of baby Moses by the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. It’s Poussin’s third and last version of the topic, and a painting displaying an abundant use of exclusive pigments, especially the warm blue of natural ultramarine (from lapis lazuli). A rare blue,for many centuries more sought after and more valued than gold. It’s specific colour-temperature in combination with the special way it has to be applied in oil-painting, makes it stand out even more than was intended by the painter.
Poussin would not be pleased at all seeing his work in its present state, with the isolated red, yellow and blues, dominating and dis-balancing the composition.
One of the main colours that went missing is green: the warm, vibrant greens. We see some greenish foliage and a cool blueish green in some of the women’s clothing, they are too cool and too weak to stand their ground. The cause is discolouration. A combination of fading yellow lakes and the browning of copper-greens such as verdigris.
Until the 19th century the painter’s palette was limited to greens that were made by mixing blues and yellows, or the cool, blueish copper-greens (including malachite). These could be turned into warm greens using yellow lakes. Simple, bright, and warm green pigments were unavailable until the 19th century.
The result of the then available limited palette and the tricks of paint, is a not very attractive, unharmonious painting.

However, this problem may be more or less solved by reproducing the painting in pixels or prints.

The Poussin on the website of the National Gallery

To achieve an optical balance, the image on the website of the National Gallery has been markedly darkened, reducing its contrast and brightness. The difference between my photo taken in the museum, and the image from the website, is more than remarkable.
This demonstrates one of the many problems we are confronted with when looking at a painting in reproduction, whether it be in pixels or print.

We may conclude that a confrontation with a real work of art can never be replicated by viewing a reproduction, regardless of the medium.

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What do we see?

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…a 17th century painting of course. Recognisable by its golden-brown appearance.
A rich table full of desserts and costly glass and earthenware. In short: the typical wealth of a Golden Age Dutch still-life.
Indeed, this work comes from the hand of a renowned painter. His name is Henri Matisse. Yes, really. The famous French modernist, creator of revolutionary and colourful works of art. 
And yes, this is no mistake. The painting is on view in the Musée Matisse in Nice.



What we see, is a product of the classical academic schooling in the arts, which lasted in Europe up to the 1960’s.  A schooling that focused on a thorough training of the eye and hand, and mastering various techniques and styles. In this process copying was considered a very useful tool in learning to understand the basic elements of composition and harmony.
When in 1893, the painter Gustave Moreau sent his pupil Henri Matisse to the Louvre, this large painting looked like it does on Matisse’s copy. A dark yellow-brown, which was then considered to be the original colour scheme of 17th century painting.
If you would visit the Louvre now, looking for the original by Jan Davidsz. De Heem, it’s very likely you will have trouble finding it. Because this is how De Heem’s work looks today. Cleaned from thick layers of yellow varnish and dirt.

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Now the original colours are  clearly showing the painter’s lively composition,  the huge purple draperies embracing and accentuating the vibrating colour-scheme in the foreground. Some of the pigments have faded but still, it is clearly a totally different image and atmosphere then when Matisse studied it in 1893. 

We can enjoy this brilliant palette thanks to the revolution in conservation science. New techniques and insights are lifting the brown smog in many art museums around the world.
In the catalogue Matisse, radical invention (Art Institute of Chicago, 2010), the two paintings are  shown in a insightful article on Matisse’s later interpretation of this work, the large Still-life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s ‘la Desserte’, 1915. 
What would have been the effect on Matisse’s choice of colours, had he known about the de Heem’s hidden colours-scheme? It’s an intriguing question.
His still-life might have turned out quite differently.




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Indigo

 

P.P. Rubens, Desecend of the Cross, oil on panel, 209 x 148 cm., Antwerp Cathedral.

When Rubens painted this large altar-piece in the beginning of the 17th-century, he was using the same blue pigment as his colleagues in Asia and South-America: dried indigo, mixed with a binder. 
Antwerp, Rubens’ home-town, was at the time one of the main-ports in the booming global trade between Eurasia and the America’s. Transshipping anything from spices to gems, from delicate textiles to commodities. The unique position of Antwerp enabled Rubens to use a new, powerful, dark-blue pigment, shipped from today’s Mexico to Europe: indigo. 
Indigo is a cool, blackish blue, which accounts for the rather gloomy appearance of the triptych. Despite the disadvantage of a cool colour-temperature, it became a welcome substitute for the costly lazurite (ultramarine) from lapis lazuli, frequently unobtainable for painters outside Asia. This precious and heavenly stone  was mined in the Afghan mountains of the Hindu Kush, due to  grimm weather conditions only accessible in summer.

 Bonampak, Maya-mural, ca. 650, with Maya-blue, made of indigo and polygorskite. 

Nowadays we know indigo mainly from the multicultural ‘jeans’. Originally a sturdy working outfit for Californian miners, now a globally accepted uni-sex piece of clothing.

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The oldest surviving pair of jeans, a Levi’s from ca. 1890. Indigo-dyed cotton.

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