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

Lectures on Colour & Paint                                                                                         Masterclasses

Colour and Theories


Colour Theory  versus  Painting Practice

 

www.7coloursproject.com

 

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.      
monicaR  all rights reserved

Lectures on Colour & Paint                                                                                                Masterclasses