An interesting side-effect of turning pro is that I can’t always choose when I paint, mostly because I need to paint more. I still need to be producing even when there isn’t enough light to paint by.
As well as painting, I do my free webinars late in the evening, UK time. That’s because the kids are in bed then so I won’t be interrupted (except by the cat) and also because people from all over the world attend them, especially the US, so I try to schedule the webinars for times that most people can easily make.
In both cases, the only option is artificial light.
I’ve always been obsessive about painting by natural light, to the extent that I considered it an integral part of my style (if, indeed, I have a style) so it was with some reluctance that I started using artificial lights.
Actually, I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised. I’ve found that I can still create still life set-ups that look quite natural, and whilst I still very much prefer to paint by natural light if I can, I’ve come to see that artificial light actually has some useful advantages.
For one thing, it’s steady, and will remain so indefinitely. That makes long painting sessions a possibility – although there is always the danger of working too long.
So I’ve come across a few useful facts in my research about lights that I thought it might be useful to share.
What to look for in lights
- High CRI. CRI stands for colour rendering index. This is a must. You want your colours to look the same – or almost the same – when you look at them in daylight. A high CRI means that the lights do a good job of faithfully showing colours when compared to a natural light source.
- Temperature. Ideally, you want it to be around 6500K. This is a cool temperature, will be similar to north light. Doesn’t have to be that high, though.
- Maneuverability. You want stands and you want to be able to angle the lights.
- Have more than one. So that you can have one light on your subject and another on your easel. A set up like this gives you the most flexibility of lighting, and also means that you can careful balance the light on your subject and your painting surface. That can really help to simplify a lot of the problems of realist painting. One of the advantages of artificial lighting is flexibility, so you want to be able to take advantage of that as much as you can.
The lights I use
These lights are made for photography. I actually got them for filming videos, but soon realised they would also be useful for painting.
The downside is the CRI. The bulbs that come with the lights, as far as I can ascertain, are only about CRI 80. I spend a lot of time and effort on colour, so I want to be sure that the colours I paint with will look as close as possible in daylight to what I see when I’m painting.
So the first thing I did was to change the bulbs for these:
Now, I’m not actually recommending you use these bulbs. My electrical knowledge is practically non-existent, and these bulbs are physically a little too big for the heads. They’re also quite a bit brighter. For all I know, that’s dangerous. But I have been using them for some time now without any obvious problems.
The point here is that if you get these lights, you need to change the bulbs for ones with a higher CRI.
Also, These are fluorescents, which means that they are a bit peaky. By “peaky”, I mean that certain narrow bands of the frequency range are accentuated. that’s true of all fluorescents.
That may affect how you perceive some colours under lights like this. I’ve certainly noticed that, under these lights, some of the Munsell chips appear to be slightly out in hue, compared to other chips on the same page. I think this is probably due to peaks in the spectrum. I don’t notice it by daylight.
But generally, they’re fine, you can worry about these things too much. My approach to colour is very exacting, and if I wan’t using Munsell to manage colour, I doubt I’d notice that at all.
The great thing about these lights is the flexibility for the cost. Although the stands are a little flimsy, they’re fine if you’re careful with them.
You get three heads, although I only ever use two. You can have two or four bulbs switched on in each head.
They also come with softboxes which are brilliant for taking that hard edged look away and making the light look more natural. If you get lights that don’t come with diffusers, you’ll probably want to improvise something to soften the edges of the shadows.
One of the stands is heavier weight and comes with a big boom arm which can be used to position a light above the subject. Top-down lighting can look really dramatic on a still life, so that’s useful too.
Overall, for the price, and if you change the bulbs, these lights are great.
The only other type of light I have are Solux bulbs.
I used to use them exclusively and sometimes still do, and they’re great. The temperature is a little warmer, more like an overcast day. That’s just preference, really.
The CRI is high, and the frequency response across the spectrum is very flat, no peaks, more like daylight. The only thing I have against them is that they’re not very strong, and if you put a diffuser in front of them you lose too much light. But they’re still very usable.
A lot of people are using LED lights for painting by these days. I haven’t experimented with them yet, but will soon. My friend Julian Merrow-Smith of Postcard from Provence fame occasionally uses an LED to paint by, and is very impressed with it. A recommendation from anyone who paints as well as he does should be taken seriously, so that will be my next buy.
What about you?
Let me know in the comments what type of lights you use for painting, how you find them and how you use them.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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