Art in half-light

February 12, 2008

Robert Genn

Yesterday, Edward Vincent of Sydney, Australia, wrote: "No
matter what type of painting I do, my work looks infinitely
better in half or reduced light. One wonders if they would be
best in the dark! Is it the absence of half tones? Is it a
general lowering of the key? Is it the absence of detail, or is
the truth much more sinister?"

Thanks, Edward. There are several significant deceptions
happening when you view your work in half-light. Like buying a
car in a dark alley, you're inclined to miss the flaws. You
need to bring the vehicle to a well-lit area to make a wise
decision. Problem is, self-deception helps us to feel
good--temporarily--and often gives us courage to continue our

On the other hand, half-light is much like the effect you get
when you squint at your work. Things look softer and sometimes
more artistic because details are subsumed by the big picture.
While "sore thumbs" can stick out in half-light, many an
admiring half-light look happens after some of the sore thumbs
are healed. Unfortunately, squinting is merely part of the
creative process--one's efforts must also stand up to open eyes
in the cold grey light of dawn.

Creative evolution requires that we face our faults. Human
nature would have us avoid the distress. While all art is some
sort of an illusion, it's important that we creators not be
deluded. Here are a few suggestions:

Invite yourself to look at work in all lights--including those
under which the work will be viewed in galleries, homes or
museums. For the studio, a progressive dimmer is a valuable
tool. Be hard-nosed in your looking. Pay particular attention
to mid-tones in a variety of lighting conditions. Do they hold
up?--or do they disappear to chalky whites or deadly blacks?
Note the recession and protrusions of colours. Often, slightly
retouched compromises, grayed or in higher or lower key, will
bring a work to life. Further, when viewing in full light, ask
yourself if some edges might be somewhat softened--as they
would be when seen in half-light. Above all, take every work
for a walk--outdoors.

Many artists feel the need to have two sides to their
being--one confident and energetic, the other diffident and
critical. Split personality or not, to see the truth we need
more light.

Best regards,


PS: "The easiest person to fool is yourself." (Richard Feynman)

Esoterica: Many of us have had the experience of going into a
darkened cabin or other murky place and noticing a particular
print or painting that seems to exude wonder and mystery.
Closer examination in proper lighting may reveal a more
pedestrian work. Point is, we cannot rely on bad lighting to
sustain our reputations. Sooner or later, people really take a
look at the stuff.