Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Night and Day - lighting your subject

Three Degrees
coloured pencils on Saunders Waterford HP

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I'm minded to try a series of simple still lifes with the same subject matter drawn during the day and then again at night. My first thoughts were about lighting. I used to think that I don't have the ideal set-up in terms of lighting but I'm now beginning to wonder what the ideal set-up is.

First things first - the drawings of three William Pears - with various degrees of 'blush'.
  • the above drawing is done contre jour in north light with an artificial light shining on to my paper and providing a slight degree of side (or fill) lighting on the pears which were sat just below my eye level right in front of me (on top of my heavy duty shredder which I've discovered provides a good height for still life objects!). I'm still not sure I've got them dark enough
  • the drawing below is done in the evening but with artificial lighting mainly from one side. It's also a bit sketchier and has more obvious and open hatching.
Two's Company
coloured pencils on Saunders Waterford, 10" x 8"

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Now - on to the lighting. Here's what I notice are the main differences in drawing during the day and at night.

Drawing in daylight
  • During the day, you can see much more subtlety in both tone and colour - which makes drawing much more interesting/difficult
  • If you draw in a room with north light / no direct sunlight you get fewer problems with the direction of light changing. My north-facing room has one corner which is affected by the direction of light - and I draw in the opposite corner!
  • No matter what the direction of natural light, you can still get problems with the intensity of the light - how much it illuminates. Cloudy overcast days produce dim rooms.
  • Colours can seem more muted - however colours will also read more 'true' to life.
  • Drawings done during the day can seem 'quiet' at night.
  • The value and colour of backgrounds tends to depend on whether they are closer or further away from the natural light
Drawing in artificial light
  • At night, artificial lighting can have a similar impact to the use of flash. It tends to reduce the tonal subtleties, increases contrast and produces more 'black holes'.
  • It's difficult to reproduce 'true' colours resulting in colours which seem more lively and even garish than they are 'in reality' (i.e. during the day). This is because the colour of light at night (the colour cast) tends to be associated with the sort of bulb(s) used for artificial lighting. Most household bulbs produce a warm yellowish light - and my home (and yours!) may well look like a candidate for a Kinkade painting from the outside when the lights are on. However the range of lamps/bulbs available means that I've got options around lighting and can produce light in a range from very warm to very cool.
  • How the room is lit will tend to influence how backgrounds appear in terms of value and colour
  • Artificial lighting tends to introduce artificial 'highlights' - i.e. they are associated only with the lighting
  • How the light is positioned will have an enormous influence over what a subject looks like.
Other things that matter - irrespective of night or day

It's essential to distinguish between hue and value. When drawing three very similar objects I kept finding myself drawing colour as hue rather than tone or value. In the end I drew the background to the daylight drawing at the right value but in a colour which 'worked'. It's a colour which is an exaggeration of a colour I could see.

The overall degree of luminance (think in terms of number of candles!) operating within a room determines how well lit your subject is and hence how well you can 'see' your subject.

Colour only exists in terms of the way an object responds to the wavelengths of the type of light which hits it. Light also bounces off whatever an object is sitting on or near and hence the colour and nature of these surfaces also matters in any set-up (hence long debates about what the colour of walls in artists studios should be!) .

I've finally found a use for Signature Pencils, which I found worked very well as my 'pencil as paint brush' once I've got enough layers on. I find them far too dry to use normally - but my Azo Red worked well on this one.

In both my drawings, other than the position of the pears, the only other thing that changed was the time of day and the lighting. The surface on which they sat stayed the same.

Approaches to lighting

There are various theories about how you should approach lighting your subject. There's a lot of material on the web which has been written for photographers - but a lot of it is relevant for artists.

Here are some - in shorthand:
  • Never work at night / without natural light. A tutor once told me this and said that she always worked with natural light and when the light went she just packed up and finished. However she did also enjoy living somewhere where the light is excellent for most of the year. However there are many people who can't always work during the daytime and/or with natural light. My view - it's great idea for those blessed with oodles of good natural light and less good for those of us who don't!
  • Never work in natural light - the idea is that paintings aren't created to hang in the studio - they should be on somebody else's wall where they will usually be seen / shown off in artificial light. So, the theory goes, it's a good idea to work in the context of the sort of light in which it will be viewed. This is an interesting one - and one which probably should be thought about a lot more as I think it may well be true. However, I'm not convinced this means not needing to think about lighting.
  • Always use daylight bulbs - daylight bulbs are the answer for those of us who are not blessed with lots of good daylight all year round. Daylight bulbs redress the balance rpoviding blue light in contrast to the yellow light given off by most artificial lights.
  • Supplement daylight with lamps with daylight bulbs - this tends to be my preferred option for days in winter where the light is dim. Daylight lamps are nice but can be expensive. Daylight bulbs can be a lot cheaper although may also be less effective.
  • Always use professional lighting on stands. My view - nice if you can afford it and have the space to use/store the lights when not in use. It's worth getting ones which have adjustments to control the range and 'flare'. See the 'Good lighting is an art' article for more on this topic.
That's my 'off the top of my head' list. Do you have any other suggestions as to approaches for lighting?

Information and advice about lighting

What follows are a few links to various websites which provide information and advice about lighting
Do you know of any other sites which provide good advice about lighting?

Artists and Lighting

Here are some artists who were renowned for their use of lighting of particular sorts of lighting.
Bookmark! More information

I've added a module into this website Composition and Design - Resources for Artists which will cover lighting-related matters.

I'm also going to to try and find a set of links for daylight bulbs and lamps and studio lighting for my Art equipment - Resources for Artists website.


  1. The natural/artificial light discussion is one I used to have often. In my experience: I paint in natural light and sometimes daylight bulbs (usually only to get a bit more painting in at the end of a winter day). What has held true for me is that something painted in natural light then looks balanced and 'right' in ANY light. However, if I work in artificial light and then show it somewhere with natural light there's definite problems with the colours and tones.

    In fact I had a great comment from a friend once, who knows my work very well. When staying at my place where a few canvases were hung in the living room, she said that as it got dark the paintings also felt like they were naturally getting darker too. They reflected something of nature.

    I'm not a huge fan of daylight bulbs because they seem too blue to me. But combined with another type of bulb seems to balance the light a bit better (I halogen + daylight spots in the studio). Of course the best option is full-spectrum bulbs, and you can now get full-spectrum flourescents too. I do wonder how the new regulations on energy-savings bulbs is going to affect the availability of our specialty bulbs. Anyone know?

  2. Great post Katherine, thank you!

    BTW I think it's spelled chiaroscuro and while chiaro means clear it also means light (or more accurately "bright").

  3. Hi Katherine,
    I think lighting can only be a recommendation, never mandatory. Just as a example: I am painting on different media and surfaces. When I paint on silk I definitely need artificial light - I am using halogen lamps. Only with artificial light silk develops that kind of glow in the colours that you cannot see in natural light. Never. Which means that you need to paint AND hang silk paintings in artificial light in order to achieve the full colour palette and potential. Whoever has worn a silk dress during the day will know how it looks like in the evening with bright lamps everywhere.

    When I paint with acrylics on cotton f.e. I use both. I start painting wih artificial light but also use natural daylight to check on hues and saturation. Often enough acrylics appear too dull in daylight and too bright in artificial light - I try to adjust my colour palette so that it looks good in both but I prefer artificial light with the same argument you used above - that paintings normally are not hung in daylight but in a room lit by artificial light.

    I have tried daylight bulbs but do not like the light they are creating. Sounds weird but the light is too cold. I very much prefer halogen lamps - downside is that they get very hot although I do not use the tiny spotlights but the ones that are enclosed in glas so that they have a broader light beam and actually look like a normal beamer. Don't know how you call them in the UK and whether you get them there.

    I also use stands so that I can change the position whenever I want. This way you can keep the distance.
    Btw - these don't need to be costly. I made them myself with some sort of stands that are used for garden umbrellas, mounted on a heavy woodboard. The poles are simply wooden poles you can buy in any DIY shop and the bulb is mounted in some kind of garden lamp holder that can manage the Watt. A lot of Duck tape does the rest. It does not look very beautiful - LOL - but I think that's not the issue.
    Just as an aside - these stands also work perfectly as studio lights for photographing!

    Greetings, Petra

  4. I have painted in studios with "ideal" northern light, and found it an annoying experience. The quality of the light is of course lovely and subtle, but for me, it changed too much to be useful. Even with a direct northern exposure, the intensity of the light will appear to vary depending on the sun's elevation, as will it's apparent color. Any cloud passing in front of the sun or with the area the window "sees" can also muck the thing up completely. I'd apply paint that seemed correct one moment and a short while later it would seem completely off. Maybe it's different in Arizona or Morocco, but... I live in Boston, with all it's pros and cons.

    These days I only use artificial lighting in my studio. I'm willing to trade the subtlety of sunlight for the consistency and predictability of bulbs - the latter is just so much more important to me. I'm currently using a large number of indirect halogens (bounced off the ceiling), as well as some daylight bulbs pointed directly at the work surface at 45-deg angles. I continue to tweak this, and am also starting to look into full-spectrum lighting.

  5. Lots of interesting comments! :)

    I've managed to find some more information about lighting systems and lamps. It's on the Art equipments site referenced at the end of the post.

  6. What a great post with resources Katherine!

    Myself, I'm not able to use much natural light with the day job and all, so I always use lights.

    I prefer to use regular incandescent balanced with a daylight lamp. During the course onf painting, I sometimes flip off one or the other to assess different aspects of the work. I also take it upstirs into daylight once semi-completed to check out differences and make any adjustments.

    Alwaysw wanting to learn more about this kind of stuff. Thanks for the new resources to check out!

  7. Thanks for the post and your comparison drawings. I really need to improve my artificial lighting. The Sixty Minute Artist had a discussion on lighting a while.


  8. Really interesting Katherine.
    When I have prints made they are produced in a room with both natural (North) and artificial light. To colour match, we take the proof and original into a large Conservatory. The colours often appear very different, tending to look greener/yellower. We then usually make some sort of compromise for the finished print between the artificial and natural light. The thinking being, that buyers will not often hang prints in rooms with so much natural light.

  9. I'm curious if you have a preference between your two pear pictures? I prefer the first one made in daylight because it has a happier feel to me. I've finally resolved my studio lighting happily. Over my easel I have a four florescent overhead fixture filled with three full spectrum daylight florescents and one that is slightly warmer. I also have two halogen torchiers in the room away from the easel. For lighting a still life I have a full spectrum halogen flood lamp in an inexpensive photo light stand.

  10. The interesting comments continue - I can this is a subject which is deserves more research!

    Tracy and Gayle - that comparison between lighting and natural light is pretty much what I do.

    I like the first one better Jana - mainly because there is so much more subtlety in natural light.

    However, as I think comments to this post show, lighting is very much about individual preferences and how you actually paint - and there's a great range in practices as a result. I think it's probably important that people try out different ways of lighting before making a choice.

    I've not yet managed to get an artificial lighting set-up that I'm happy with - but I'm certainly not ruling that out as something to aim for. Your mix of bulbs sounds like something I ought to investigate.

  11. I have not managed to find an ideal lighting situation for myself, either with natural light or artificial. I like my still lifes to be lit with very bright natural light, yet I live in the northwest where it's mostly gray most of the time.

    Most of the so-called "daylight" bulbs seem too blue for me, also. The only thing that has been acceptable to me is to use a heavy-duty combination lamp, that includes an incandescent and a circular fluorescent bulb. This seems to approximate the most natural light for me.

    I have my still life table perpendicular to a wall with a large window facing south. Because it's hardly ever sunny here, I've taken to drawing the shades on the window so the light is filtered, but it's not ideal because I want that full-sunlight look.

    Another artist I'd like to mention who is a master at painting light (especially daylight) is Janet Fish.


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