Friday, March 21, 2008

Improve Your Studio Lighting

"Losing a Whole Year", Acrylic on Paper, 18x24 inches
Jerry Lebo, 2008

I am sorry that I haven't posted in a while. I am not sick again. To tell you the truth, I simply decided to spend more time in the studio--rather than blogging. This has given me a bit more time to explore new ideas--and I did not have much to write about anyway. The last four weeks or so have been pretty much failure after failure in the studio--until last week--when I started to make some breakthroughs. But, I must admit that I painted some pretty bad paintings in the meantime.

I think my new approach in the studio is rooted in my previous postings over the last six months about color and perception, which always get me thinking about what I am trying to do with color in my paintings. I finally decided to take the time to explore some new ideas about how colors relate and how they can make space and visual sensations. As you can see from the above painting, it is already impacting what is coming off the easel. I am much more focused on color and how to simplify what I am trying to say. My intention has been to create what I call “color space”, which is a set of color interactions that create a certain psychological response in the viewer. In my mind, this is at the root of all good paintings. At least the ones I like.

Okay, enough about that for now. The reason I am posting today is that I have received several emails recently from readers inquiring about studio lighting, so I thought I would share some thoughts on this issue.

Let me start by saying that, by far, the most common mistake I see with studio lighting is that there is not enough of it! Many artists are forced to work in upstairs bedrooms or office spaces--and the light is usually much too low to effectively see colors and values properly. I also see a lot of people using lighting that is the wrong color (temperature)--typically too warm--which is what the standard household bulb provides. The fact is that the average number of windows in a house/apartment simply do not let in enough light to effectively work as an artist--so there is nearly always a need to add additional lighting. Many people hear that the best light is "northern light", which is true (if you happen to have it)--but there are things that are more important than having northern light--the first of which is to have enough light. You can make do without northern light--but not too little light.

If you have good windows--regardless of the direction they face--the first key is to keep direct sunlight off your canvas and work area when painting. This is also true when you are painting outside. If you are painting with direct sunlight on your canvas or palette--it will distort your perception of color and value (it warms them)--not to mention that it will make you squint. So indirect light is better than direct light. Whether you are outside or inside--if direct light is pouring into your work area--I have always found the best approach is to turn your easel so that the direct light is coming at a 45-60 degree angle to one side of the canvas/easel--so that it is not behind or directly in front of your canvas. If your looking at a subject that is in to the left of your easel, for example, then the sun should be keep on your right side just out of your peripheral vision (say, 60 degrees)--but not so far as to cast any direct light onto your canvas.

If you are building a studio, or have your choice of rooms, the ideal situation in a studio is a high level of natural indirect light--which is why people talk about "northern light" as being the best source. The sun moves from east to west during the day--and moves from north to south (toward the equator) as it the season moves to winter. Thus, northern light (in the USA, but not if you live in the southern hemisphere such as in Australia) is the only 365 day per year indirect source of light. That said, it is not only the side it comes from--but the amount, as I have said. Thus, a large western window in your studio is better than having a small Northern window--since at least in the morning you will be getting a lot of indirect light.

Okay, so what to do if right now to improve your studio lighting? Without knowing your exact situation, the size and types of window, and time of day you typically paint--generally you want to maximize the indirect sunlight--and avoid direct sunlight. If you have good natural light--the best orientation for your easel is probably away from the window--so that you are maximizing the amount of natural indirect light hitting your canvas. But, be aware that if you have a western or eastern facing window, the amount of light coming will increase at some point during the day and eventually for some period be coming directly into your studio, so you may have to add blinds and/or be able to turn your easel away at an angle, as I have suggested above.

Natural light aside, my overall suggestion to most artists is to add more artificial lighting to their studio--but make sure that it is as similar to daylight as possible. This can be halogen, incandescent or fluorescent--depending on what you prefer. The key is to look at the Color Rendering Index (CRI) and Kelvin (temp.) of the bulb you are using. Check the manufacturer's web-site or the packaging to find this information. If it doesn't say--don't use it.

For reference, remember that natural sunlight has a CRI of 100 and Kelvin of around 5500--which is a bit blue in color. The normal light/lamp bulbs you buy at the store have a Kelvin of around 3000 (and a low CRI), which is why they make everything look warm. Many halogen bulbs are also made this way--since bulb makers have learned that people generally prefer warm light. You want to use a bulb that is a least a 90-95 CRI and not less than 5000 kelvin. There are halogen lights in this range that are not too expensive--I personally use four fluorescent bulbs at 5000k and 96 CRI. You don' t have to buy one of those expensive "art lights" or other bulbs sold at art supply stores. There are plenty of places that sell natural lighting--and you can get it a lot cheaper. Be aware that not any bulb called "natural light" or "full spectrum" will work. Again, check the CRI and Kelvin. If the package or web-site does not provide the CRI and Kelvin of the bulb--then don't buy it.

I find that my studio lighting always feels a bit blue to me--since the light elsewhere in the house is warm. Don't be alarmed if you notice this effect. Natural sunlight tends toward blue--that is why shadows outdoors appear cool. They are only getting indirect (reflected) light from the sun--which is cool. Direct sunlight is warm--which is another reason to keep it from directly shining on your canvas--it changes the colors.

One test you might try for your lighting is to take a picture of a piece of artwork using a digital camera with the flash disabled (use a tripod since the exposure is long) under your studio lighting. Then take a picture of the same piece of artwork outside in reflected natural daylight (not direct light). If they look pretty close in terms of color, then your studio lighting is similar to "northern light", since all that means is an even indirect sunlight.

Get more lighting in your studio--you can never have too much--only the wrong kind.

All the best, sixtyminuteartist.