Paint Like the Masters: One-Source Lighting

In this photo of one of my models, I used light coming from the upper left to show the forms, shapes and values to their best advantage. The old masters used this same one-source lighting to define the forms in their masterworks.

When people see my photos of still lifes and portrait clients, they often comment on what a skilled photographer I am. Hardly! I know very little about photography. My lighting system is rudimentary; I bought my first, very simple digital camera less than a year ago, and shutter speeds will forever stump me.

What people actually are remarking on in my photographs is the design, in which I try to incorporate the principles evident in old master painting. It isn’t possible to explain comprehensively the design principles of old master painting in a few paragraphs, but I can suggest some basic guidelines. By following them, even a photography neophyte can create beautiful photos that already have the look of a fine painting merely because they embody strong design.

Use one-source lighting
To see an object, there must be light. For millennia humans have seen the transition of light into shadow that takes place on an object when the sun illuminates it. If you have more than one primary light source, such as in a room with many fixtures, light falls on an object from different directions. Areas that would be in shadow may be illuminated, or an object may cast more than one shadow. Even though mentally we can recognize an object, many different light sources will visually confuse the definition of form; hence, one-source lighting is the best way to define form.

The old masters understood this and nearly always used one-source lighting. They most often used light that came from the upper left.

I generally work in a darkened room; all the windows and doors are covered. I use a light stand made by attaching two clip lights (from any hardware store) to a horizontal bar, threaded atop a collapsible tripod. My system is rudimentary but useful, as the stand is portable (convenient for commissions). The particular type of stand isn’t important; you could also use a floor lamp, for example. Just be sure that you can move your light source around so you can find the best placement for illuminating your subject.

Generally in old master painting, what’s best is when the light source is in front of, above and to the right of the sitter (that’s to the left of the photographer). Other placements are of course possible, but this particular one is a good place to start.


A board member of the Society of Tempera Painters, Koo Schadler conducts workshops on egg tempera and old master painting. Author of the book Egg Tempera Painting, she’s a master painter of the Copley Society of Art in Boston. For more information about her book and her work, visit www.kooschadler.com.


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