Changing the light

July 20, 2007

While it may be academic to know your light source before you
begin, it's also possible--particularly in darker climes--to
make light sources and light effects arbitrary and after the
fact. Keep them in your pocket, so to speak. Leaving options
open while work is in progress lays the groundwork for
surprise. Surrendering to a felt need is part of a creator's
joy. Our game is art, not slavery.

Several days ago in the Queen Charlotte Islands I was faced
with a particularly flat day. Overcast and grey, it wasn't even
foreboding. Not much was wrong with the small canvas I painted
down on the beach, but during the windup strokes I realized it
needed something more. Changing the light is a painter's
prerogative. Remembering the sunset of the previous
evening--and the rain squalls passing through it--I thought,
"Why not?" If you're interested, we've made a three-minute
video of the painting event. It's at the top of the current
clickback. See URL below.

Light takes top billing as a principle actor. Apart from adding
drama, mood and condition, it's the main tool for describing
form and volume. In the great outdoors, light takes its cues
from the sky. At the same time, light is often the key to
colour and gradation. To have the blessing of lightness, you
need shadow. Dark is light's friend.

Here are a few "light motifs" worth looking for:

Light source inside the picture plane
Light source outside the picture plane
Dappled impressions or "scrim" lighting
Against the light and "contraluz" effects
Edge lighting for separation and description
Aerial perspective through intervening light
Two-source lighting--often a warm and a cool
Reflected lighting to enhance form, space or realism
Amorphous lighting to promote mystery and strangeness
Selective lighting--e.g. lit background, foreground shade
Standard "set" lighting: fill, focus, and eye-light, etc.

Artists need to know when and when not to come to light.
Flatness and lightlessness, for example, can be used to draw
attention to graphic sensibilities. It's clear that the use of
light in art runs the gamut from restraint to schmaltz. Light
is sacred; it's important not to abuse it. "Let there be

Best regards,


PS: "The substance of painting is light." (Andre Derain)

Esoterica: Never forget light's greater values--optimism, hope,
promise, truth, wisdom. "Truly, it is in the darkness that one
finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is
nearest of all to us." (Meister Johann Eckhart) Perhaps more
than any other element, it is light that gives spirit to the
soul. "Oh mysterious world of all light, thou hast made a light
shine within me." (Paul Gauguin)