Friday 20 April 2012

Rainy Day Lighting Problems and Solutions for Artists

I thought of writing this post when I woke up this morning to an overcast day. It put a bit of a dampener (he he, pun intended) on my plans to go drawing in the Botanical Gardens. It’s not just the rain or wind that can affect our plans as artists, but also the change in light conditions – even for those artists who work entirely indoors. The light changes between sunny and rainy or overcast days can be dramatic and can affect the way we see our subjects' tones, colours and features, let alone how well we see the artwork we are creating.

The light on overcast days is very different to that found on sunny days. It is glaring and  more diffuse. Ambient light is reflected off a layer of low-lying clouds and direct light is diffused through the same cloud layer. I often notice on overcast days that I can’t do my usual trick of looking out the window as I work on my computer as it’s just so bright. 

This change in light conditions can have a huge impact on your work if you use natural light to illuminate or enhance your work, particularly if you are working on an artwork over a few days. Not only is it a different type of light, but because it is glaring and more diffuse, the dark tones and shadows that fall on your subject won’t be as strong. Any painting or drawing done on these days runs the risk of looking a little flatter without this depth of tone.

The easiest way to overcome this is to (lightly) cover your windows from the glare and place a bright light, such as a strong, adjustable desk lamp in front of those windows in the direction the sunlight usually comes from. Adjust the lamp’s position (or add more lamps) until your subject matches the work you have already laid down.

Dark rainy or stormy days have a different problem entirely. While lights and lamps will give off the same light as they would on a sunny day, the background light is reduced.Without this ambient light enhancing the mid and light tones, and with the dark tones the same or darker, the contrast, (the difference between light and dark), is reduced. Reduced contrast on the subject can mean that the artwork looks flat.

Some still life artists only work with covered windows or at night to avoid being at the mercy of changes in light. If cutting down the light in the room doesn’t suit your work pattern or living arrangements, your best option is to enhance the level of ambient light in the room.

You have probably noticed how overhead lights on dark days don't seem to help unless it's very dark, as the light is only from one direction and doesn't fill the surrounding area with light. So, rather than having one or two overhanging lights, a series of smaller lights regularly spaced will create a good replacement for sunnier days. The next best solution is to surround the space with bright lights, directed away from the subject. Bouncing lights off surrounding walls, particularly white walls, works a similar way to natural light within an interior. If you have a very large space to light up, you may like to try both techniques together.

Remember though that natural light is warm light. It is naturally more yellow or orange, whereas many electric lights, (most infamously fluorescents), are pure white or blue-toned. You've probably noticed the difference in how you look under a fluorescent (unflattering) light compared to a more golden (flattering) light, and the change on your subjects is the same. While you do want a bright light - that is, a strong light with high wattage - you need to look for yellow-toned or warm-toned lightbulbs or light filters.

We'll be adding a tutorial on lighting rigs soon if you want to check it out at I aim to enlist the assistance of our local animator to give us tips so it should be fairly indepth. We should be up and running within a few weeks.

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