Advancements in Painting Light

Advancements in Painting Light by Michael Newberry
Light delights us. In paintings is easy to see, but the development of it through history is anything but simple.It has been the focus of some of the world’s greatest artists. It is worthwhile to get a glimpse of some of the innovative artworks that advanced light in painting.

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514

Light in a painting is tied primarily to the form of the objects. Also, it has a yin/yang relationship to shadow. No shadow, no light. An artist will use light and shadow to mold forms.

These horses’ heads from the Chauvet Caves in France are a great example of forming with light and shadow. It is awe-inspiring that this artist had this knowledge 30,000 years ago.

Chauvet Caves Horses
Horses’ Heads, Chauvet Caves, 30,000 b.c.

In contrast to the Horses’ Heads, this flat image of a Minoan fisherman is without light. It is a fresco painting from Santorini, 1650-1500 b.c. The images are recognizable by their blocked-out silhouettes (like a cardboard cut-out).

I really like the colors and the balanced silhouettes of this image, but it lacks the substance of light and form.

Akrotiri-Santorini 1650-1500 b.c.
Akrotiri-Santorini 1650-1500 b.c.
There are few examples of ancient Greek painting. Here is one faded example from the tomb site of Alexander the Great’s immediate family.

The addition of light complicates visual imagery. It catapults a flat image into a 3D universe. It imbues the image with more weight and realism–closer to how we see real objects.

Here we can make out shadows molding the mouths, eyes, chins, and undersides of their arms.

 Rape of Persephone by Hades, Nikomakos, 350 b.c. Ancient Aigai.
Rape of Persephone by Hades, Nikomakos, 350 b.c. Ancient Aigai. The only complete example of an ancient Greek painting that has yet been found.

In these Pompeii frescos in Italy, we get some idea of what might have been classical Greek painting.

The environment is bathed in light. Notice the hierarchy, a key component in creating light, from the bright light behind the two woman and the more muted light between the bull’s legs.

Also, notice the light’s sweep up the half-naked woman’s torso.

Roman Europa

Europa and the Bull, 1st C. AD, Pompeii

This is a great example of the artist using light to bring out the form of anatomy. Notice the flicks of highlight along the man’s arm. And the flow of light along the woman’s torso.

Lovers, 1st C. AD, Pompeii The Northern  Lovers, 1st C. AD, Pompeii The Northern
Lovers, 1st C. AD, Pompeii The Northern

Renaissance artists’ works are noted for attention to extravagant details. In The Arnoflini Portrait below notice the tour de force of exquisite details. The painting is very neatly broken down to each object’s color group: brown for the fur of the coat and dog; pale flesh tone for the people; red, green, and purple for the clothes.

The light here takes a subservient role. It is used to simply set off all the details of the objects. Light is coming from behind our left shoulder. But there is also light coming in from the left far window, behind the couple. This can set up objects competing with each other for our attention.
The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

In this da Vinci we have one light source, unlike the van Eyck work above.

Lady with an Ermine, da Vinci, 1482-5
Lady with an Ermine, da Vinci, 1482-5

Here is an important, though a subtle difference in developing light in painting. Notice the women’s shoulders. Van Eyck used just enough light to give shape to the green cloth and white scarf. In contrast to that, da Vinci cloaked a sheen of light over both her flesh and cloth of her shoulder.

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

leonardo-da-vinci-lady-with-an-ermine

Raphael makes a great breakthrough with the light in The Dilerverence of St. Peter below. He takes the idea of the halo, yet he wants to make it feel real. Behind the angel is glowing light, as if the light was coming from the end of a tunnel.

An interesting phenomenon is the transparency of the angel and it’s wing tips. Often I have shown students a fact of how translucency works. You need to have a bright window in a room full of shadow. Then you hold up your finger: half of it against the light and the other half against the shadow. Then you squint looking at your finger. You will see a very delicate border dividing your finger, making it literally transparent–exactly like the angel’s wings here.

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514
Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514

The flatness of this symbolic halo is a good contrast to the realism of the Raphael. Actually, there is some effect of light on his forehead, collar, and hand, but the light is by no means consistent.

St. Nicholas, early 14th century
St. Nicholas, early 14th century

Caravaggio went after light with a vengeance. He dramatically contrasted light adjacent to dark. Notice the boy’s eye with its startling brilliant highlight and almost black shadow.

In exploring these high contrasts, Caravaggio ran into some spatial difficulties–Goliath’s head doesn’t feel like it is a yard in front of David. Rather, it rests on the same plane. Contrast with the Rembrandt below.

David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio,1610
David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio,1610

On the other side of Europe, Rembrandt was taking light further than any previous artist. Rembrandt spotlighted the people and things in his paintings. He used light to highlight the things he wanted us to focus on. But he also solved the difficult problem of spatial relationships. It is quite simple for us to track the spatial relationships of all the people in his painting. Contrast that with the David above.

It is interesting that The Night Watch setup is similar to the van Eyck couple portrait. In both paintings, there are two light sources, one from behind us left, and from further back left.

Rembrandt, The Night Watch, 1642
Rembrandt, The Night Watch, 1642

The key difference between the two paintings is Van Eyck used light to heighten all the details, while Rembrandt stylized the light, making everything else subservient.

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

It is impossible to talk about light in painting and not include Vermeer. Radically different than Rembrandt in style, Vermeer pushed the envelope of how far one could realistically perceive light.

I could spend volumes in comparing nuances of light effects here. Let me just point out one for now.

 The Milkmaid, Vermeer, 1658-61

The Milkmaid, Vermeer, 1658-61

Vermeer Milkmaid demo light

Just above her head there is an extremely subtle pink tint, somewhat in the shape of a rectangle. It is probably the cast light formed by the shape of the window. Lower right, behind her body, are several, increasing subtle shifts of cooler colors than the pink tint above.

Vermeer’s eye probably sees more nuanced light shifts than any other artist, before or since.

This is part 1 in the innovation series on light. In part 2 I will show how artists developed the light based on complimentary colors.

Michael Newberry
New York, September 24, 2007

Imagination

Imagination by Michael Newberry

Gallup, The Glistening Playground, 2009, 30 x 40 inches

Gallup, The Glistening Playground, 2009, 30 x 40 inches

Imagination is one of the cornerstones of art. Its use can be quietly subtle, or flagrantly push beyond the bizarre, or inspire generations of people to dream beyond their immediate circumstances and envision a world of possibilities.

One of the more quiet ways to use imagination is to recreate a real scene from life, yet include additional real objects to complete the idea of the work. Here, David Gallup created an idyllic setting of the Pacific Ocean replete with dolphins, birds, and surfers.

Dali, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1946
Dali, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1946

Here Dali uses some realistic elements and then distorts aspects of them to create an imagined world in which the unbelievable interacts with the real.

Gerome, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1881
Gerome, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1881

A variation on the unbelievable subject with the real comes from Gerome’s Pygmalion and Galatea. He conveys the legend of the sculpture of Galatea being so perfect that the stone turned into living flesh. Gerome does make the far-fetched scene look as if this is really happening.

Kandinsky, Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle), 1913
Kandinsky, Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle), 1913

Kandinsky’s Sea Battle conveys a rather freewheeling imagination – an ambiguous collection of forms and colors. Is that a strawberry or blood? A wing of a bird or a splash of water? A sail? A rock? It’s rather like looking for animals, and things in the shapes of clouds.

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830
Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

Delacroix in Liberty Leading the People uses a great deal of imagination in the subject, a half naked woman leading the masses in a revolt against a regime. Yet, the scene is meant to feel genuinely real–not like a surreal dream or like an impossible physical transformation.

By how an artist expresses their imagination, such as an escape, a playful distraction, as entertainment, or as a beacon, one can get some insights into the artist’s philosophy of life. And see something of your reflection as well.

I hope you enjoyed imagining art in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
Santa Monica, March 2009

Being an Artist: Approach Art Like a Child

Being an Artist: Approach Art Like a Child by Michael Newberry

Michelangelo, detail of Creation
Michelangelo, detail of Creation

Expressing artistic vision, aside from all of the technical stuff, is really no more difficult than a child, left to his imagination, creating a little universe out of paper and crayon.

On the other side of the spectrum, da Vinci and Michelangelo went beyond the confines of being craftsmen to establishing themselves as artist-creators. What they did was simply do what the child does, but on an advanced level, thereby dramatically elevating the furthest reaches of art.

Newberry, charcoal of Rives BFK, male nude holding light
Newberry, Light of Mine

It’s kind of strange that between that little kid and da Vinci masses of painters sweep aside their personal visions. It’s not only easy to get lost in the big universe of art, but it is encouraged by dealers, critics, friends, people who wish you well, and mothers. The impulse to direct your talents is irresistible to them.

If you are not resolute and clear-headed enough, genres, financial considerations, and popular opinion may also contribute to the confusion of what it means to be an artist.

Having watched students, painters, and sculptors struggle with fulfilling their intimate, personal dreams and cringing at seeing some of the paths they take, I think I can be helpful with some practical and ideological suggestions.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, the spark is the thing. Your personal vision is something to handle with great care, like holding a point of light in the cradle of your hand.
For many of you there are so many thoughts, recommended paths, and uncertain visions floating around that the “spark” is nowhere to be found, dashing any hope that you will be able to take care of it.

Whether or not this is the case, it’s always great to get away from everything and to be alone with paper and pencil, noting your visions down as you allow yourself to dream.

I don’t mean anything like finished drawings, rather just little doodles of ideas.

When I am thinking up an idea for a painting I might do this 15, 20, or 30 times–simply jotting down the visuals that pop into my head.

Those little pieces are your personal visions or sparks.

I think of creating a painting as a succession of sparks. Every color, every setup, every gesture, every subject should give you some excited feeling. If what you are looking at, or imagining, doesn’t make you feel anything, you are guaranteed not to inspire yourself or anyone looking at your work. It’s simple really: if you don’t feel it, keep hitting the “delete” button until something takes–and that is your signal to go that way!

The map of art is riddled with dead ends and painful detours. Commissions and photography should be labeled with the warning: Spark Killers Ahead Proceed with Extreme Caution.


Sue Johnson, one of the several studies for a self-portrait.

If you are concerned about nurturing your love for art, do not take commissions. The lure of a healthy payment will never make up for all the compromises that commissions promise. Not only that but once you create a successful commission, sitters will be knocking down your door and your dream of realizing your personal visions will be buried under layer after layer of forgettable portraits.

The other spark killer is relying on or using photography as a starting point. I know it offers conveniences, but the cost of it is that you will never connect your fragile spark with your perceptual awareness, i.e. with being there. Photography is a ruthless and unforgiving tool for a painter; it will leave its mark on every aspect of your painting, forcing you to abandon your spark for its lurid, frozen flatness.

Don’t just trust me on this, experiment with it yourself. Do a piece from some exciting living example and do something solely from a photograph–and compare them with this question in mind: which of them is more alive?

Far too often painters take their spark for granted and take paths which simply cannot lead to their personal happiness in art. Don’t make this mistake. Approach art like a child and take great care with the fountainhead of your art. You will be rewarded with a lifelong joy of being an artist.

I hope you enjoyed this little trip on seeing art in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, December 13th, 2006