The Cellist, 5′ x 4′, oil on linen, painted in northern, side light
For those that don’t know about my working methods, one of the hallmarks of my technique is that I work entirely from natural, northern light. I just find any other form of lighting to be inferior, in that the light is always so “same.” This sameness is why many painters work from electric light, in order to achieve a consistent light which won’t vary from day to day. But I find that the variable quality of natural light is actually an asset. On a sunny day, a portrait sitter is bathed in warm, intense light, with all of the details of the face in either brilliant light or dark shadows. On a rainy day, that same sitter will have a cool, consistent light across their face, with delicate transitions between light and shade on the face. How exciting to draw from both of these realities, and create a synthesized, third reality of light!
Why northern light? Well, it does not necessarily need to be northern light. However, once I began painting with northern light, I realized how pleasantly cool and diffused this light was. And when this cool, northern light falls on a portrait sitter’s face, the shadows are warm and resonant. I have painted in many types of natural light, and I do so on a regular basis, but if I am going to choose just one source of light, it would be northern. Southern light is more tricky, the problem being that direct light comes through the window and onto the floor. This may sound trivial, but it actually throws the lighting for the whole room. The aperture of the eye is set to the existing light levels in a room, and as this patch of sunlight makes its way across the floor and onto the walls, the eye adjusts to this burst of light. And so, the shadows become darker and the middle values get lost. The aperture of our eye can’t take in both the brilliance of that direct light, and the subtlety of the interior light.
For an ideal studio, the light needs to also be from above. Not directly above, but high up on the wall, such as a very tall window. Again, this is not an absolute necessity, but is really desirable. The problem with side light is that it creates a shadow pattern which is vertical. Think of shining a flashlight directly to the side of an orange. The result is a line drawn from the top to the bottom. This is, quite simply, not exciting in aesthetic terms. For a portrait painting, side light necessitates some cunning placement of the model, so that the Jekyll and Hyde light/shadow pattern can be avoided. Light that comes from above and to the side is much better. It is much more flattering to the human figure, the human face, still life objects, etc.
Well, why am I writing so much about light? I mention it because I’ve found another studio that I will be working in. A local church has a beautiful building with 15 foot tall, northern windows in an enormous room. The ceiling is about 17 feet high! The building itself is 150 years old, and is a very nice structure. I am so very excited about working in this space, I should be in there in about a week’s time. My old studio, located in a warehouse, is fairly large, and is ideal for certain projects. But, the light is from the side, and so I’ve found this to be limiting. I’ll keep my old studio, and work in both the church and the warehouse, depending on which project I am working on. But I have to say, I am so excited for the tall, north windows in this old church building.