Bruce Marsh

Painting: Images and Thoughts.

White Paper

White Paper

Ive been thinking of doing a post on colored light, as  it applies to representational painting in general and landscape painting in particular. It’s a powerful and also subtle tool ; it can give unexpected vitality and presence to images. The photo above, one of a series from some color exercises I did years ago, is an example.  The white paper is lit from the right by daylight coming through an open window, and is lit from the left by a flood lamp…’tungsten’…(all light bulbs with filaments are tungsten). The results on the back wall are pretty dramatic in terms of color, and have NOT been manipulated in PhotoShop!

Painters from the renaissance have used this contrast….Warm and Cool…as indoor lights have always been warm…candles, firelight, etc…. And the warm cool contrast remained a strong consideration into Abstract Expressionism….with Hans Hoffman asserting that warm colors advance and cool recede. I think it’s almost a hardwired phenom of perception…near stuff (interiors) lit with warm light, far stuff (landscape) lit with cool and also full of cool color…blues and greens of sky, plants and sea.

So….I’ll shortly add a longer post on this with some very specific information on how the painter…or image maker in any media….can consider and use this notion.

Further thoughts;

Polaroid of Colored papers, 2 light sources.....

Polaroid of Colored papers, 2 light sources.....

This polaroid, from years ago, is of two pieces of paper on a white wall. The  light coming from the left is from a photoflood lamp (tungsten). The light coming from the right is from an open window, daylight. Note the color changes made by the different light sources….the bigger piece of paper is blue construction paper, the smaller piece is a piece of a brown paper bag. The blue paper becomes a very saturated (pure) blue-green on the left side, where it is lit with daylight, which is quite blue. The blue paper on the right, lit by the photoflood, a very orange light, looks like a dirty yellow green, quite unsaturated, (grayish). Orange is the complement of blue….think of orange as red + yellow….so the blue paper absorbs a lot of the orange, and it has very little blue to reflect. Thus it’s a dirty gray green. The brown paper….this brown being a low saturated red-orange, becomes a fairly rich orange on the left side, where it is lit with orange light, but on the right side, where it is lit by the blue daylight, it becomes very gray, with a tinge of pale red violet, produced by the blue of the light mixing with the red component of the brown.

Also note the “white” wall….yellowish in the center, blue at the lower right, gray at the other corners.

As I wrote this I realized how difficult this is to explain! You need to know that things ‘have’ a color simply because they reflect that color (those wave lengths of light), and they absorb the other colors. A red thing is red because it has a chemical make-up which reflects red light, and absorbs the other colors. This is termed ‘subtractive’ color. If a space is only lit by green light, a red thing will seem to be black.  If a space were lit by blue light, the red thing would look to be violet. In yellow light it would look orange.

So….the painter has the freedom to choose any light conditions…the most familiar contrast, used since the renaissance, is warm/cool….lights are warm, shadows cool. And often the near things are warm, distant things cooler…as in atmospheric perspective. BUT…interesting things can begin to happen, and unexpected qualities can pop up, if the painter chooses less conventional contrasts. I have often, deliberately, chosen to move toward cool lights and warm darks, which can seem unexpected in landscape stuff. It feels a bit like flourescent lighting…and can create an subtle note of artificiality. But one could also choose any pair of complement….violet light and yellow shadows, green light and red shadows, etc.

These contrasts could be subtle or blatant…at one extreme one could render stuff as if it were out of a punk or heavy metal music video. And..speaking of media…you might pay some attention to the use of colored light in almost all visual media….print or video or film, contrasting color of light, subtle or blatant, can be very effective in conveying ‘qualities’, in an almost subliminal fashion.

I’m sure someone is studying the effects of media on our color perception; there are such clear differences in color tastes across cultures and time. Think of a victorian parlor, and a 50’s kitchen, and Times Square. I see Matisse’s palette in womens clothes at Walmart.

Back to painting; a main concern of mine is a feeling I’m stuck in a particular palette, and that I need to push in some unfamiliar directions. This conflicts with my idea of working with a high degree of objectivity…the damned sky is blue again this afternoon!!  So maybe I need a few ochre and raw umber skies. I did do a completely negative piece, years ago, but that, of course, was definitely objective…

Negative Skyline, Mirror, Italian Shoes

2 Responses to “Colored Light…..”

  1. Jay Hoffman


    One is supposed to illuminate certain Louise Nevelson pieces in blue light. The black-painted array of shapes is rendered less material – almost floats. Reminds me of the way that so many bridges are swathed in blue light.


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