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Lighting Techniques in Art
The human mind is only capable of sight by means of taking light through the eye and interpreting that within the brain. Although people did not fully understand the scientific properties of light until relatively recently, artists throughout time have had the particular challenge of creating an illusion of the existence of light within an art piece. Human sight has an incredible range, feeding the mind images of the surrounding world from near complete darkness to the brightest of sunlight conditions. It is through this range that the world becomes reality, and it is therefore the place of art to attempt to capture this range of light. However, traditional pigments have a very limited range, and therefore the artist must find ways to make the available colors combine to create an illusion that may be interpreted by the viewer as similar to reality. The lighting techniques of painters took a significant turn in the Early Renaissance period which moved their work much closer to nature in appearance through a change in lighting styles, and this continued to influence the art periods that followed.
The Renaissance period was characterized by an increasingly realistic capture of scientific perspective and natural appearance in paintings. In the beginning stages of the Early Renaissance (and also in the art periods prior to the beginning of the Renaissance), artists found it extremely difficult to achieve enough luminance range to show shadows and lighting variations across a single color, especially darker colors. Instead, completely different colors would be used to imply the change. For example, The Madonna would be represented in a blue dress but with a red cloak, because it would be very difficult to show shadows through an entirely blue garment. In other cases, lines on clothing would be done in gold or other colors to imply the folding of the cloth, because the single color would otherwise appear to be very flat and not at all realistically dimensioned. Art using these color-modeling methods to imply the effects of light would inevitably appear fragmented. Da Vinci would, during the Early Renaissance, revolutionize the use of color and light within painting
Leonardo da Vinci was the first painter to truly achieve an accurate-to-nature and scientifically sound appearance to his subjects in regards to lighting techniques. "Leonardo da Vinci was the first artist to use value consistently across colors, achieving tonal unity in which a figure presents a single, swelling, homogeneously generated volume." (Douma) However, his greatest achievement in this area, which would allow for a completely new kind of interpretation of light within the painting, is the technique of chiaroscuro. This technique would strengthen the illusion of depth within the painting, and define the three-dimensional shape in a completely new way. Da Vinci would actually paint a broader range of luminance than what he actually saw in reality, so that the change from dark to light would be most dramatic and vivid within the painted interpretation. This shading would dominate tone more than color itself. For example, his Mary dons the traditional blue dress of styles before, however the actual colors used within that cloth range from black to a blue so light it is almost white, with many shades between, which gives her figure an appearance of great depth and a glossy, almost heavenly dew-covered look. Because of his consistency through his work, however, Mary did not appear to be wearing a multicolored dress, it appears to be a single color with varying levels of light on it. Every colored object in the painting would have a common range of value that would stay consistent for every object that would be the same color. He did use midrange colors, but not the extremes that would become more common in the High Renaissance. Da Vinci said of his work: "If you put [figures] in dark colors, they will be in too slight relief and inconspicuous from a distance... because the shadows of all objects are dark. And if you make a dress dark there is little variety between the lights and shadows, while in light colors there will be greater variety."
In the High Renaissance, Michaelangelo would further the developments made by da Vinci in the realm of shading in painting styles. His use of color contrasts for dramatic effect were very original and used a much more unrealistic range of color to show depth and light, revealing a move away from the attempts to stay very true to natural lighting styles of earlier painters.
For example, Michaelangelo would not only use color ranges from very dark to very light orange on an orange piece of cloth, but would also add yellow highlights or red for shadows. This gave his figures a more-energentic-than-life appearance. Michaelangelo's colors are vivid and highly contrasted, and his object are crisp and very set off and contrasted from the background. This is very different from da Vinci's work of only a few years before, which was more subdues, unified, and blended. Da Vinci attempted to recreate nature by painting with a wider range of luminance than actually appeared in life, while Michaelangelo recreated nature by using completely unnatural combinations of color to represent the shades and shadows in life.
In the Baroque period that followed the Renaissance, a new way of lighting the objects within a painting would be explored. Baroque is characterized by very dramatic coloring and lighting.
Rather than simply bringing the lighting source into the picture through the effect it would have on the objects being portrayed by representing it through use of color, the Baroque period had a movement which would often focus on the light source itself as the central theme of the painting. One example of such is Vermeer's milkmaid, where the yellow bodice is actually a source of light within the painting, and the light from the apron actually spreads to the woman's cap and onto the wall. Another series of examples are the "Candle Light Painters," which feature within the painting a candle which gives the image a very dark and dramatic feel. Natural sources of light were usually used in Renaissance paintings, but these artificial light sources were very much a representation of man's move further from the natural world. In Gerrit Honthorst's Christ before Pilate, perhaps one of the earliest Candlelight paintings, the candle within the picture completely illuminates Christ alone, only partially throwing light on other figures. These artificial lighting sources which are themselves visible give paintings a very theatrical and almost tangible feel.
The changes in use of lighting within paintings from the Early Renaissance to beyond the Baroque period showed both a move towards and a move away from nature. Da Vinci's revolutionary new way of creating a seemingly three-dimensional object within a flat painting brought a much more natural and real-world feel to the images he created. However, this more natural form also brought to life the beyond natural color schemes of both da Vinci, and even more so those of Michalangelo, which brought in exaggerated colors to show the shading and shadows of the image. The Baroque and later styles which feature artificial sources of light may be showing a less natural lighting source than the outdoor lighting of previous styles, however there is something actually more realistic about the way the light behaves within these scenes.
Craven, Thomas. 1958. A Treasury of Art Masterpieces. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Douma, Michael. "Vision Science and the Emergence of Modern Art." Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement. http://webexhibits.org/colorart/
Hartt, Frederick. 1976. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Sculpture from the Gothic Period through the Nineteenth Century
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