The Color Temperature of Light

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In these side-by-side interior photos of a lamp, the image on the left represents Daylight film exposed with Tungsten light; the image on the right represents Tungsten film exposed with the same Tungsten light.

As painters we understand that without light there would be nothing visible. Objects within our painting scenes have mass, a proximity to one another and a reflective quality. All of these elements work in conjunction with the light source to create what we see. There are two major components at work when we see: the eye and the mind. The eye is the camera and the mind the processor. Just like photography, the eye records the information and that information is then interpreted into a representative image by the brain.

Using photography as a means to better understanding what we see is helpful. Prior to digital photography, the proper type of film had to be used for the lighting condition. Daylight film was balanced for a mixture of sunlight and skylight. Tungsten film was for indoor situations that utilize artificial incandescence lighting. Film being an unintelligent product, lacking the ability to ascertain what it was seeing, allowed it to show the color temperature of the light source. If daylight film were exposed indoors, photographs would be extremely orange. Tungsten film when exposed outdoors would produce extremely blue casts. With the advent of digital, however, film became obsolete. The computer sensors built into the camera body read the light coming in through the lens and adjust to a standard called “auto white balance.”

Unlike the camera, we associate information into the symbolic. From infancy, we compile this information into a belief system. When we see something, our mind quickly pulls from this stored information and identifies it. This produces a certain amount of bias and prejudice: skies are blue; trees are green; flesh tones orange. What we miss is the color temperature cast of the light. A house may be white, but only as white as the light striking it. This is a sort of “human auto white balance.” We don’t take the time to really look.

Becoming sensitive to the “quality” of light takes time and practice. You have to confront color prejudices that have taken years to accumulate. Open yourself up to the sensation of the light; compare different areas to each other and look for a shift in common colors. Ask yourself: Does the white house across the street look the same as the white paper in my sketchbook? If the color temperature of light continues to be difficult to see, try placing a good-sized white surface outside near your home, observe it at various times of the day during different seasons. Look for subtle color shifts. Over time, you’ll see them. And once you do, it will become easier to see the color of the light in every situation, making your paintings more successful.


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