Okay so I paraphrased a quote about photography but it is also true for painting and any form of two-dimensional art, you paint the light not the subject.
That’s why all of those cold water garrets in Paris have North Light, the better to see you with my dear.
So if you happen to be in Paris then you have the proper light and won’t need to think about it when you start a painting cause it will just fall there coming as it does form the skylight in your dingy flat but if you happen not to be in Paris then light is something which you are going to have to think about, think about a lot, think about all of the time, cause that’s what makes of breaks any image. It’s the light and the direction of the light which makes the picture take form.
Okay some basics. Flat lighting gives the most illumination. Think about all of those cube farms where people work day in and day out in artificial sunlight never stopping for weekends or holidays or deaths especially their own. Dying is no excuse for missing a deadline. And in order to meet those deadlines they have to have lighting, lots and lots of lighting, from all of those banks and banks of fluorescents.
Fluorescents are great and they are helpful to the environment, they use less energy and run cooler and last longer, but the make the lighting flat and uninteresting. Of course if you are a day-slave working in a cube farm you don’t care about interesting, you care about that deadline.
Want to spice things up, add in some cross lighting. The classical masters did this by placing their subject close to a window and drawing the shade. Presto, change-o you got cross lighting, until the sun goes down. That’s where the north light comes in again. But what if you aren’t in Paris, remember I said that was one of the challenges I was going to set for you, not being in Paris with a drafty garret and a nekkid French girl shivering on the settee while you putz around getting everything ready cause you don’t have to worry about the light cause it is from the North and it comes in through the skylight, but you aren’t there, in fact you are here on the coast where if you have light at all it is probably gray and not coming form the North.
So what to do? Along comes Tom Terrific, the Wizard of Menlo Park, and invents the electric light which can now be had in all sizes and shapes and can be run even in the dark times of the day when having a nekkid girl in your studio won’t get you arrested by the forces of Good in the community.
And because that light can be had in all shapes and sizes we can create cross lighting any time we want it.
Cross lighting is wonderful for objects. It makes them stand out and have shape and dimension and that is a very good thing for any painting to have. But it is not so nice if your subject is a human being, especially that girl I mention in the last paragraph, nekkid or not cause no matter how open minded she is she is not going to appreciate having dark shadows under her eyes and a nose outlined like a Borglum sculpture.
Now you are in a fix, you don’t want flat uninteresting lighting and you can’t have strong cross lighting and you have to have some sort of lighting even if your subject is a squash which is by the way seldom of the complaining school of thought and that is why more folks should consider having a squash as the subject of their paintings but in case you don’t happen to have a squash or have no interest in squashes, although frankly I cannot imagine why you wouldn’t be fascinated by squashes in general and some of the more exotic ones in particular, a squash isn’t the only answer.
Key lighting or hair lighting is the way to get some easier shading on your subject without making it look so much like Rondo Hatton.
I’ll tell you all about Rondo some other time, key lights or hair lights are just what they sound like, they are smaller lights focused on key points of interest in the composition or on the hair of the subject to both enhance the highlights and separate the subject from the background.
If you happen to be a photographer and I am so I know about some of this stuff you have to do all of this lighting stuff on the fly as you look at the subject cause there just isn’t any way you are going to talk an egret into stopping by your studio or getting that half sunken ship out of Charleston harbor.
But if you paint you can do this at your leisure and even change the lighting as it suits your purpose. What God-like power. And it’s all there for you to use any time you want.
Ask yourself “Where is the light coming from?”
If you have an answer then you are ready to paint.