Illuminating Your Studio

Q. I work at night in my basement, and I’m wondering about the lighting I use. I have a fluorescent shop light along with regular household lights, but I’d like to know more about color correcting light systems. Can you help?
Christine Cernetish
Gregory, SD

A. Studio lighting and color-rendering (the capacity of a light to reproduce the color effects of daylight) can be complicated issues, but by taking the time to learn a bit about the types of lighting available, you can improve your painting studio. For the most part, it sounds as though your studio lighting is already reasonably good, although it could be better.

By using both fluorescent and incandescent (“regular household”) lights you’re accounting for both the cooler portion of the spectrum (fluorescent) and the warmer portion (incandescent), and by doing so you are “filling in” with one light what’s missing from the other. Ordinary fluorescent light is normally too cool and blue-green to be used alone where good color-rendering is important. Fluorescent light is also rather bland—it doesn’t cast strong shadows. Incandescent lamps lean too far the other way: Normally, they’re too yellow to be good color-renderers, and they tend to cast shadows that can be harsh, with almost too much contrast.

The problem with your setup is that the lamps are in separate fixtures, and so the two different kinds of illumination don’t mix well. As a result, you probably have cool spots in portions of your studio from the fluorescents and hot spots from the incandescents. Another problem is that the color temperature of either kind of light isn’t high enough (close enough to daylight) to produce quality color-rendering, so they’re not likely to help you produce more natural looking color in your paintings. You might not notice this unless you were to paint in a space lit with north daylight.

I assume that by “color correcting light systems” you mean “full-spectrum” lamps, which simulate the effects, in color temperature and color-rendering ability, of natural daylight by covering the spectrum of light more fully than either incandescents or fluorescents alone. These lamps either have sophisticated fluorescent tubes in them or combine high-quality fluorescent and incandescent lamps in the same fixture. In either case, the color temperature is higher than that of regular lamps, which gives you better color-rendering, and there are no hot or cool spots with these lamps because the illumination is combined in one fixture and diffused through a filter.

This may sound great, but these lamps typically don’t light a very large area, and they can be expensive to operate. This means that you might have to purchase two systems, one to illuminate your subject matter and one to illuminate your painting. In addition, since all lamps begin to deteriorate as soon as they’re turned on, they slowly lose their ability to be good color-renderers as their light output decreases and their color temperature falls. Therefore, if accurate color-rendering is important, you’ll have to be willing to replace the lamps on a regular basis—as often as once a year, depending on how much you use them.

I’d recommend that you think carefully about what type of lighting is really best for your studio, however. As I’ve said, north light (in the Northern Hemisphere) gives the best color-rendering of any light available. It’s the most balanced—with energy available at all visible wavelengths—and it’s nicely soft, without harsh shadows. Although daylight can’t be reproduced, true full-spectrum lights are quite good at simulating it. The question artists should ask themselves, however, is whether they want to simulate daylight in their studios for artistic reasons or merely to satisfy a tradition passed down from our European forebears, who had no electric light to consider.

Think about where your paintings will likely be viewed. Most galleries, museums and public exhibition spaces show work lit by incandescent spotlights and floodlights. This is because incandescent light, which is heavy on the warm colors, tends to be the most flattering. If you sell your paintings to individuals or corporations, these too will probably be hung indoors without much natural light. It’s possible that if you approximate daylight in your studio you’ll be creating your art under significantly different conditions than it will be seen.

In the end, you’ll have to decide whether the truer color that top quality lighting provides is worth re-equipping your studio for. And here’s a final thought: In my opinion, no light can do justice to the colors of a painting as well as daylight can. So I never finish a painting without looking at it closely under plain old north daylight, and I almost always find a color or two that needs adjusting.

Louise Cadillac has won many awards, including the American Watercolor Society Gold Medal and the Rocky Mountain National top award, and her works hang in private and public collections across the country and abroad. As a writer her articles have appeared regularly in many art publications. As a juror she has judged competitions for The Artist’s Magazine and the American and National Watercolor Societies, among others, and as an instructor she has taught throughout North America and in France, Italy, Greece and Indonesia.

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