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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