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.


  1. Ingenious arrangement Nick. Food for thought. One thing solved, I'll be looking for high CRIs. Thanks.

  2. You left out the part of the story that involved the rickety wooden ladder and near death experiences! It is an amazing solution, and it really is unbelievable how well it works.

    See you round the studio.


  3. I don't like terrifying people unnecessarily. It was gruesome.

  4. As ever, the Alton Brown of art. Or maybe MacGyver in this case.