Monday, February 21, 2011

Studio Lighting

I was thrilled to move into my studio last year, but just as quickly dismayed by having to adjust to a totally different lighting arrangement from my long-time home studio. Since the natural light at home was so lousy, I'd gotten quite used to doing all of my work under artificial light. For the last few years it has been a four-bar fluorescent troffer of the kind used in suspended ceilings, only in my case I found that by hanging it at a 45-degree angle over my easel and putting in two warm and two cool fluorescent bulbs, it cast a reasonably even, reasonably bright and shadow-free glow over my work.

The new studio, by contrast, has high ceilings and absolutely enormous windows--facing South. During the Summer, these windows cast a great light since the sun is high in the sky and the light beams barely enter the room. During the Winter when the sun is low, though, the light enters practically horizontally all day, making for bright and dark patches that are impossible to paint through, and then the days are so very short that without some artificial light, painting time is unnaturally (or is that naturally) short.

This required two separate solutions. The first was to sling up muslin curtains over the windows to diffuse the sunlight and make the light more even. The curtains had to be single-layered and with as few waves and weaves in them as possible, as these would create areas of greater and lesser shadow. My solution was to get large sheets of inexpensive white photographers' backdrop muslin and support them with lengths of PVC pipe from Home Depot. The muslin arrived with two sides hemmed for slipping over pole supports, so I slipped them over the PVC pipe and tacked them in place with hot-melt glue. To allow for raising and lowering them, I attached rings to the ends of the PVC pipe with stainless steel pipe clamps/straps, and tied them to lengths of marine rigging cord. I climbed a ladder and drove large screw-eyes into the ceiling and attached pulleys to them with clip-locking carabiners. Attached to the wall near the floor are cleats that I can tie off the cord with, allowing me to raise or lower the muslin to any height.

Of course,having muslin over the windows only lowers the light-level even more if it's a cloudy day, so I needed to add some artificial light to the mix. Hence the light stanchion. A friend recommended I look into large-format fluorescent lighting for photographers' studios. It was gorgeous, but at well over $2,000 just to start, it was beyond my pocketbook. Besides, cameras need much pickier light than eyes, in my opinion. Film will get a color cast to it, as will digital CCDs at the drop of a hat. The human eye, by contrast, is much more forgiving. I've done reasonably accurate paintings under colored light. As long as the palette and the easel are under the same light, you can muddle through some pretty extreme situations.

This light stand is made to cast a big amount of decent, glare-free and shadeless light on a large surface with little falloff. And it was relatively cheap. As you can see, it's a portable basketball net, of the kind used in driveways across the world, to which I've bolted (or actually asked someone to bolt--I'm emphatically not a handy person. You know the expression, "Measure twice, cut once?" Well, I measure twice, then cut a hole in my thumb.) two two-bar, 96" fluorescent fixtures, making for a total of four eight-foot fluorescent tubes. The base is filled with play-sand, so it's very stable and has wheels so it can be moved around with reasonable care. Total cost, under $400 for materials, low power consumption, and with the right bulbs it casts a bright light large enough to evenly illuminate an 8' X 6' canvas. Yes, I'm planning an 8' X 6' painting. Three, in fact.

As you can see, the standard UL-Approved lighting junctions are mounted to the back, and the clear backstop barely blocks any window light in the daytime. As an addition, it can be raised and lowered considerably if needed, although the lowest setting seems to work best for me at the moment.

As to the bulbs, you have to be a little careful with fluorescents. The most common ones are somewhat cold, but their big drawback comes from the fact that they artificially boost a few narrow ranges of the color spectrum, which can selectively throw off your colors. I got around this in my previous setup by having two bulbs each of warm and cool, and their overlapping spectra cast a pretty good light. I found to my horror that they don't make 96" fluorescents in "warm", so I did a little research and found that what I needed to get were bulbs with a high "CRI" or Color Rendering Index. These are specially constructed to have a good balance across the whole spectrum and are used for industrial color matching. The bulbs I'm using have a CRI of 94 (out of 100), but I understand that out there are some with CRIs of up to 98. The important part of the number is the distance-from-100 part (or so I hear), meaning that a 98 is three times better than a 94, not just a few percentage-points better. Nevertheless, between natural light part of the day and reasonably accurate, bright and even light the rest of the time, I'm pretty happy with the arrangement.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jacobs Point-March

Late winter is the most black-and-white time in the marsh. Pretty much everything you see is shriveled, bleached, blackened and broken, and most of the snow is gone so it's harder to see the sky color in shadows. In any event, the sky around here is usually gray, so it doesn't add a lot of vivid color, either.

As such, you really get to see the mix of land and water and what the constant erosion and rebuilding does. That's why this painting is so linear--I just liked the way the "S" curve of the channel got foreshortened into a sort of arrowhead swoop. I was particularly happy with the way I got the distant strip a barely-remaining snow: one stroke of a painting knife. Sometimes it just works. Most of the time it doesn't and you have to do it over and over until it's right, but when it just works you have to just be grateful and leave it the heck alone.

I thought for sure I had a larger image of this one, but it looks like I'll have to make one. I'll post it as an amendment later on. One of the tougher things about working big is that I have to concern myself more with issues of lighting and documenting the work. It's relatively simple to light a small painting well--even a desk-lamp will do. You can also document a piece by just slapping it on your scanner (when dry, of course). With larger pictures, though, there's significant fall-off if the only light is from above, as by ceiling fixtures and so forth. This means that the lower portions of the picture may be in less illumination than the upper portions, leading you to mistakenly paint them lighter to "go" with the upper bits. This goes both for painting and for photographing the work. This is why artists have for years loved working under the fabled "north light".

True north light can only be obtained by having skylights that face the unobstructed north of the sky, with no admixture of the other directions and no objects like trees or buildings in the field of view to reflect back their colors. This way the light is even throughout the day (you never get beams of light directly from the sun), and slightly cool from the sky or cloud reflection and transmission. Since daylight is so much brighter than most lamps (a fact hidden from us by the adaptability of our eyes) it also experiences much less falloff over distance than artificial light and hence illuminates even large work relatively evenly, depending on the size of the window letting it in.

My studio has south-facing windows, so I've had to make a few adjustments both to the windows and the lighting to get things to a comfortable level for me. You can see these adaptations in my "About Me" picture, but (teaser) I'll go into them in detail on my next post.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Jacobs Point-August

I'm going to be posting my way through a small backlog of completed paintings, while getting set up (mentally and equipment-wise) to resume my daily oil exercises. This one is the most recent completed landscape, again Jacobs Point. I miss warm weather.

This one was painted on a really rough-woven hemp canvas from I love painting on heavy canvas, but my slightly frugal soul rebels at paying upwards of $70 US per yard for linen. Hemp canvas is nearly as strong as linen and is only about $15 US per yard. Its staple, or average fiber length, is about 20 cm as opposed to linen's 25-150 cm. Cotton, by contrast, maxes out at about 6 cm. Supposedly Titian liked hemp canvas for his larger works and I'm happy to follow in those footsteps. I prefer to mount my canvas on board in any case, since I tend to abuse the canvas and really dislike it if it gets flabby during the painting process.

This was also the first larger piece I've painted using the linseed oil/chalk medium that I've come to favor. I'd read about it from several sources, notably Francisco Pacheco's "Art of Painting", but it's gone into pretty thoroughly on Tad Spurgeon's site. Even though I've got a larger, airier studio now I still prefer to paint without stinking up the joint, and the medium also does such wonderful things to the paint that I'd favor it in any case. Basically, it's just a mixture of linseed oil and powdered chalk or marble, and you can vary the quantities to vary the thickness and flow. It also adds a stringiness to the paint that I love, similar to the behavior of white lead. Add to that the fact that its translucency allows for some delightful color effects and I'm hooked. Of course, it works best with linseed oil that you've refined yourself. Yes, I'm geeky enough to refine my own linseed oil now. Honest, it's better. Really.

These trees form a nearly straight line out toward the end of Jacobs Point. I assume they rooted in that way because of a ridge of drier land, perhaps originally a sand bar. I've got reference photos of them in all weather, including a notable day when I had to wade out in a Winter floodtide to take the pictures (no outdoor sketching that day). Standing near knee-deep in brackish water with a thin rime of ice on top was a bit of a trial, but I found that if I stayed reasonably still, the water that had overflowed the tops of my boots warmed up nicely. That was the day I resolved to buy a good pair of tall neoprene hunting boots, suitable for long walks in low temperatures and waterproof to their tops. Mine are by Kamik and very, very toasty.

First Post, And an Explanation

First off, welcome to my blog. I've had a website for years ( but after a number of changes to the software I used to build it and the aging of the overall design, I've decided to relegate it to an archive and continue to post my work here. Yes, that is my real name. It sometimes strikes even me as somewhat preposterous. In the unlikely event that I learn PHP, MySQL, XHTML and the rest of the alphabet salad that makes up contemporary Web-design, I suppose I may redesign that space, but in the meantime....

I've Been Working on Landscapes
The area I live in has a lot of salt-marshes, and I've become enthralled with painting them. One in particular, Jacobs Point (no apostrophe) seems to take a lot of my attention. Perhaps because it's a nature preserve, perhaps because it's so conveniently close, but it's also gorgeous. I've done a number of paintings of the place, and have plans for many more. I've settled on a standard dimension for the pieces, too--two feet by four. The panoramic proportion seems to suit my sense of landscape design. I suppose it's because, growing up as I did in New York City, the broad view was always both rare and exotic, confined to such things as Central Park, Riverside Park, tall buildings with large windows, and Summer vacations.

This one is called Jacobs Point-September, and was inspired by the way the different types of grass brown over at different speeds, and by the way the few trees out at the end of the point cast long shadows over the marsh in late afternoon. This clump of phragmites reeds caught the light quite dramatically. The Warren Land Trust has been trying to return the Point to its original plant species by increasing the salt-water flow through the marsh. This will push the freshwater reeds back closer to the mainland and rather extensively reorder the painting possibilities of the place. At the moment the reeds, being so tall, create backdrops, walls and curtains that restrict the space in interesting ways. I'm looking forward to seeing how the local spartina grasses affect the overall look. I can only presume (and hope) that they regain some of the appearance that Martin Johnson Heade painted in his saltmarsh pieces, notably Newburyport Meadows.