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The Light on Your Canvas

How to light your canvas when painting indoors and out-of-doors.

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Painting Light

As you can see from the shadows, the sunlight is coming from behind the canvas.

© Jerry Fresia

Having the right light on your canvas, whether you’re painting indoors or out-of-doors, is fundamental and essential, yet something I often observe artists doing wrong.

When painting out-of-doors, you have to keep in mind that, when you’re done, your paintings are going to hang on a wall under indoor light. So to paint in a light while you’re painting that will be similar to this you must always turn the easel so the canvas is in full shade. Or to put it another way, you must turn the canvas ‘against the light.’ This means that no sunlight must fall on the canvas during the entire painting process. It may also mean that, depending on the angle of the sun, you end up having to look over your shoulder to see your subject!

Avoid Painting in Direct Sunlight
Remember that, ultimately, your painting will hang on a wall under indoor light. If you were to paint it in direct sunlight, you’d not be able to judge color values well and the painting, when brought indoors, would be too dark overall.

Oh, and forget the sunglasses. You need to see subtle differences in value, tone, and color, which is more difficult when you look through colored glass. Take off your sunglasses and give yourself a chance to see what you’re painting. You need to learn to taste with your eyes and with sun glasses you cannot possibly taste the subtle flavors or spices.

Light when Painting Indoors
When you paint indoors, you don’t want direct sunlight from a window to fall on your canvas but you do want indirect lighting from a window to illuminate the canvas nicely. Thus, when you paint indoors, you want as much indirect window light on your canvas as is possible – which, when you think about it, is very similar to being in the shade out-of-doors.

Obviously you want to be able to see what you’re doing when you’re indoors, but avoid switching on the overhead lights as these destroy any sense of form that a single source light creates on your subject. If the indirect light from the window isn’t enough (or you’re painting in the evening), set up a lamp that lights your subject from the side, but doesn’t shine directly on your canvas. The key is indirect lighting.

What About ‘Normal’ Light?
Let’s take a step back and begin with the term ‘normal’ light, which is one of those scratching-the-blackboard-with-your-fingernails concepts. It’s equivalent to painting nudes with ‘flesh color’ paint. But the term does provide us a point of departure for an understanding of what light is.

Let’s say you are in a studio with white walls at midnight. All the drapes are drawn, all lights are off. It is dark as dark can be. Then you turn on a single, small, green light. What do you see? Everything is greenish. Now do the same with a yellow bulb, then a red one. These ‘ishes’ -- the greenish, then yellowish and reddish -- are what is called tonality.

Light surrounds and bathes everything. Everything exists within it and cannot be seen except through it. When we paint from nature, it’s helpful to be visually aware and sensitive to the tonality or the quality of the light in which everything is immersed.

Daylight is not ‘normal’ light either. Rather daylight has the same characteristics as the various colored lights in the studio we visualized. It’s also a single source of light (though in this case it’s the sun, not a light bulb) and, like the various colored light bulbs, it too bathes everything with a particular ‘ish’. Moreover, if it’s morning and it’s cloudy, the ‘ish’ will be different than if it’s afternoon or sunny.

The term ‘normal’ actually undermines our ability to taste the light with our eyes. It short-circuits our sensation with an idea. To say a particular light bulb has a ‘normal’ color to it is like saying the green light bulb is the normal color. There is no such thing as ‘normal’ color or light.

Go to Part 2 of this Feature: Artificial Light

Parts of this Feature: Light on Your Canvas

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