I was speaking with a friend recently about how our sense of space seems radically different in different locations. More than the obvious change in topography and surroundings, there seemed to us an elemental difference in the relationship of earth to sky from place to place. Why does the sky feel so much bigger in Montana, for example. The quality of blue in the sky seems to factor greatly into these perceptions. I recalled a landscape-painting teacher who instructed us on the mixture of paint for sky blue. She described the slight changes in pigment one would need for painting skies at different sites on the globe. By her reckoning our Philadelphian skies had more ultramarine blue whereas the skies above the Serengeti would require more manganese. She sited the differences in airborne particulates and the reflected color from the ground as the cause, though I doubt that fully answers the question.
When the moon is visible on the horizon it often appears to be larger than when it hovers above us in the sky. I had always thought this effect was attributable to atmospheric distortion acting like a magnifying glass. In fact, the visible size of the moon is unchanged as it navigates the night sky, though our perception of it does change. To put it briefly, we regularly confuse the distance and scale of the moon while we have a pretty good sense of how things are supposed to look smaller on our earthly horizon. When moon and horizon appear close together our two understandings of scale are in conflict, making the moon look abnormally large. Color again plays a role here in our perception of space. The atmosphere does not really distort the shape of the image but it tints the moon with the warmer tones of pollution. Warmer colors appear to advance while cooler colors appear to recede, again making the moon seem nearer than when it is high in the sky and a cooler shade of white. An orangey harvest moon look huge, while the moon overhead on a clear crisp night looks tiny.
We are continually manipulated by the color and quality of light. I observe this regularly in a slide photograph that I have taped to my studio window. The slide is a large format color photograph from the fifties of a woman standing in her bathing suit. It is a beautifully composed image and the colors are curiously tinted magenta. As the day changes outside, so too does this transparent photo. And with that changing light through the celluloid, the scene alters in effect. We accept photos as fixing a moment in time, but the changing light through this image somehow brings it back to life—the girl in her swimsuit almost seems to be animate. I’m transfixed by how a clear blue day will make the scene somber, and yellowing sunset will make it feel frivolous, violet light intensifying the magentas in the image and making it outright decadent.
For the past few weeks I’ve been getting to paint by the light of a newly added skylights in my studio. The three 50×24 inch windows are set flush into the gabled ceiling on the northern facing side. Prior to this I was working by the light of full spectrum incandescent shop lamps, halogen bulbs on a gooseneck fixture and occasionally sunlight through the open door. The lighting outside the painting is as critical as the light within a painting. I tend to fuss with my lights a lot, changing the arrangement, direction and intensity of them on my easel and palette. Too much light feels intrusive and distorts my sense of values in a piece. Too little light leaves me blind to the subtle relationships of color and value. I begin to drool at the thought of Stanley Kubrick’s chase for light in film. Kubrick cleverly sniffed out and purchased extremely fast lenses that NASA had developed in order to shoot candlelit scenes in Barry Lyndon without additional light sources. That sort of mastery over a lighting situation is inspiring. While I’ve had plenty of time to come upon an ideal setup in my studio, light is always elusive and my needs seem to change. These new skylights have redesigned the battlefield.
North light has traditionally been sought for the artist’s studio in the northern hemisphere as it excludes the arc of the sun across the sky and provides the most consistent light throughout the day. The classrooms at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where I studied had wonderful skylights to work from. Often these studios, meant to receive north light, would be cast with the strong orange light reflected off the side of the neighboring building. Despite being inconsistent, it was always a marvel to have diffused light from above create graceful dramas upon our models. I wasn’t as interested in the consistency of my skylights either, as much as the blue light it would offer.
Leonard Shlain has a terrific discussion of the significance of blue in his book “Art and Physics”. He describes how blue is last to enter a culture’s vocabulary of color while words for red are universally essential. Whence the notion of blue enters a culture, however, it lingers and tends to accent elements of sophistication and complexity. In art, science and culture the color blue has been a source of revelation and so it has been in my studio. There is a sobering yet mysterious flavor in my studio now that I have that north light. It feels like a shrewd editor that is unifying all the little details in the room. I am finding it easier to focus and get deeper into the space of a painting. With blue light my sense of the studio has been manipulated and my creative space feels new again. Opportunities to see familiar subjects as if for the first time are invaluable. Lighting is a wonderful enabler to provide those experiences.