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Old 12-31-2008, 03:27 PM   #1
Jennifer Bogartz Jennifer Bogartz is offline
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Making up your light source from imagination




I'm interested in trying this out on a still life. I've been studying chiaroscuro a little bit, and think that the masters (Caravaggio in particular) made some of this up, designing the light to create drama. I've set up a still life and turned off the lights, using a small flashlight as my light source. I've done this with a candle as well. I'm finding that the light is difficult to control. I don't want the background illuminated, and yet the flashlight reveals too much. The candle is nice and warm but kind of dangerous, I don't want to keep it burning for hours and dripping wax everywhere. I don't want to work in the dark, I've done that before and it's difficult to have any control over color. Do you think that it's possible to light a still life with a general light source in mind while ignoring it if it doesn't give me the effect I want? I'm worried I'm going to start copying what I see instead of conceptualizing it. How would you go about lighting a still life if you were trying to paint it with chiaroscuro? Has anybody done this?
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Old 12-31-2008, 04:25 PM   #2
Richard Bingham Richard Bingham is offline
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According to what is known of Caravaggio, he did, indeed, paint from the life, arranging his subject matter and lighting for the effects he desired.

Like learning to paint using the value range that's circumscribed by our materials, learning to "see" directional light and to adjust still-lifes and other setups for effect is something that requires study, observation, thinking-through and considerable experience.

Painters would do well to learn how to manipulate light sources rather the way professional photographers are instructed. For example, in a still-life situation with a single light source, the environment can be manipulated to control the effect of light on the setup. A white card set opposite the light source will "bounce" light, filling shadows and flattening lighting and reducing contrasts. Replace it with a black card, and the effect will be to "suck" light from the shadow side, heightening contrast and deepening shadows.

Directional light may best be studied by painting in the lightest registers. This was the object of instruction in the 19th century academies in drawing from plaster casts. Many instructors today teach from "all white" still life setups placed in shadow boxes, where the color temperature and direction of the light source can be strictly controlled. Painting from them develops understanding of value, contrast, and the way warm/cool shifts turn form.

As with every aspect of representational painting, "making things up" usually yields poor to indifferent results. Until the artist has sufficient experience and knowledge working from the life to have a solid visual memory, it's best to begin with adequate, solid information from life.
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Old 12-31-2008, 05:09 PM   #3
Jennifer Bogartz Jennifer Bogartz is offline
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Thank you , Richard! Should I put the still life in a shadow box? How do I keep the light illuminating my easel from glaring all over my still life? Thank you for your honest feedback.
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Old 12-31-2008, 05:52 PM   #4
Richard Bingham Richard Bingham is offline
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Jennifer, as you're interested in candlelight effects and "chiaroscuro", a shadow-box would probably be a very good way to control lighting your setup. As noted, if you're looking to a "nighttime" ambience, if the box interior has a black or a very dark, non-reflective surface, (black velvet just about totally eliminates all reflected light) then shadows will be more intense. (If you drink a fifth of Black Velvet, it will definitely be lights out, but you probably won't get much painting done . . . )

Candles certainly are a troublesome light source for a number of reasons, but you can probably find a small electric light that can be controlled by a "dimmer" (rheostat). From the 17th century, many painters did "candlelight" scenes, and the genre continued to be popular well into the 1800s. The technique was most likely to work in grisaille, where color statements would be unimportant in bad light, and finish in good daylight.

It will take some fiddling to make a workable arrangement, but it's certainly not impossible to arrange your studio lighting so that the subject matter is "in the dark" and contrasty, while "spotlighting" your canvas and palette so that you can see well enough to paint comfortably without affecting the subject lighting.
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