Gurney Journey | category: Lighting


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

How Fluorescent Colors Work

Conventional color pigments absorb visible light energy and convert it into visible wavelengths of light. So a white light can bounce back to you after interacting with a red sweater, and you'll see the light coming into your eye as red. 

How Fluorescent Colors Work

Fluorescent—or "neon"—colors do that, too, but they have an additional trick. Fluorescent colors also absorb and convert ultraviolet rays, which are invisible, and convert them into visible light. Fluorescence shifts energy in the incident illumination from shorter wavelengths to longer (such as blue to yellow) and thus can make the fluorescent color appear brighter (more saturated or lighter in luminance) than it could possibly be by reflection alone. The absorbed energy excites electrons in the pigment molecules to a higher energy level, which then relax back to their ground state by emitting light at a longer wavelength than that absorbed, resulting in a visible glow

As a result, your eye perceives a far more saturated color or a tone that's higher in tone relative to the white paper they're drawn or painted on.

Ultraviolet light is usually present in outdoor light, whether direct sunlight or overcast. Without a source of short-wavelength light (like a black light), the fluorescent pigments won't stand out. As soon as you add an ultraviolet light source, the fluorescent pigments will appear to glow, while conventional colors remain dull and hardly visible. If a subject is lit only by ultraviolet light and no visible wavelengths, fluorescent colors will appear to glow magically in the dark. 

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

One way to capture light is to surround it with darkness. 

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

The photographs of Fan Ho, who explored Hong Kong in the 1950s, often use this principle.

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

Within the area of light, the dark elements are lightened by backlit atmosphere. 

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

The light patch coheres as a single shape, with dark elements jutting into it.

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

The light enters the dark space and casts shadows from each of the forms.

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

The key figure appears backlit in the central region of light.  

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

If you follow around the outside border, it's almost all in deep shadow.

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

The charcoal fires and cigarette smoke made for bad air quality, but it was a gift to photographers.

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

When he introduces color into this scheme, it's a revelation.


Portrait of Hong Kong 念香港人的舊 

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

Magnum Contact Sheets  


The Japanese language has a word for light streaming through a forest: komorebi. 

Photo of komorebi by James Gurney

The word refers to sunbeams interacting with leaves and atmosphere as the rays pass through the trees and fall in dappled patches on trees, the forest floor, or curtains in a cabin.

It also conveys a sense of nostalgic longing for something or someone far away.

Painting a Sunset Glow Effect

Painting a Sunset Glow Effect
Arthur Parton, Lake Scene, 1876

Several artists have accomplished this effect of a big gradation around the sun, which influences everything around the source. 

Painting a Sunset Glow Effect
Frederic Church

It's kind of difficult to paint this situation from real life because you can hurt your eyes looking straight into the sun. If it's veiled behind enough clouds, you can do it. Scenes like this are composed from memory and imagination. 

Painting a Sunset Glow Effect

Russian seascape painter Aivazovsky often applied the effect to seascapes. He suppresses contrasts in the far waves, allowing the big gradation to envelop them. 

Painting a Sunset Glow Effect
Franz Richard Unterberger, Venice Under Sunset

Unterberger captures an effect that is more of a perceptual impression than a photographic transcription.

Hopper's Light: Evocative or Illogical?

Did you notice that something is missing in this picture? It's the cast shadow from the horizontal sash of the window. Also, the shaft of light is far wider than the window, and the rays of light aren't parallel.

Hopper's Light: Evocative or Illogical?
Sun in an Empty Room, by Edward Hopper

Hopper also ignores the effect of the secondary source of soft blue skylight that would influence the base of the wall adjacent to the shadow, and he leaves off the baseboard moulding at the edge of the shadow.

Hopper's Light: Evocative or Illogical?

John Walsh of Yale University gave a lecture on YouTube, which discusses Hopper's manipulations of light and geometry. The bottom image shows a digital reconstruction Wash commissioned to show the window shape necessary to achieve the light patch. To skip ahead, visit the video at about 12:00 and 47 minutes.

Are these faults or are they fair choices to make a more striking picture? I can see why Hopper didn't want to make the sun patch smaller or to cut it up with cast shadows. The painting is about emptiness and it's a big statement of light and shadow. There's not much else to look at here. 

Hopper's Light: Evocative or Illogical?
Rooms by the Sea by Edward Hopper, collection Yale Art Gallery

There are a lot of things wrong here, too. He shows a slanting shape of light cut off on the left, as if it's limited by the top of the doorway. That's OK. But the bar of light across the floor has a similar angle. Something feels wrong about that.

Hopper's Light: Evocative or Illogical?

Perhaps he remembered seeing the light effect and constructed it in a way that felt right to him geometrically. But it's completely impossible.

Hopper's Light: Evocative or Illogical?

I set up a quick cardboard maquette to show the problem. That shadow across the floor shouldn't have an angle to it. It must be a straight line from the edge of the door to the base of the wall.

Do these criticisms seem trivial or pedantic? I hesitate to share them because I like Hopper's work.

But art should stand up to hard looking. Once I start noticing how illogical the light is (not to mention the perspective and the carpentry details), it's harder to appreciate the sentiment of the picture. It's like trying to walk with a pebble in your shoe. 

An artist has freedom to do anything he or she can get away with if the resulting painting communicates more effectively. But its probably best to make a statement that's consistent with truth.


The guy holding the pole caught a fish. He says he doesn’t eat fish and gives them all away.
Fishermen on Santa Monica pier, 1981
I made this sketch on location at the Santa Monica pier using a brush and ink to capture the late-afternoon edge lighting. Regardless of the local color of each form, I rendered anything in shadow as black and left anything illuminated by the sun as the white of the paper.
From "The Artist's Guide to Sketching, 1982

Light Temperature

Artificial light is rated according to its color temperature, listed as a Kelvin number (Celsius degrees). 

When you heat up an incandescent filament, it radiates light. At lower temperatures, the filament gives off a more orange or yellow light. As it gets hotter, the color it radiates becomes bluer. 

Light Temperature
Comparison of light temperatures via Reddit
When you buy a bulb, it is rated on this scale. In this photograph, a series of bulbs are lined up in a gradation from 1000 K to 10,000 K. Although the scale was created based on incandescent light, it is used for LED and fluorescent light as well.

A candle flame is about 1900 K. Bulbs that produce light at 2-3,000 K are often called "warm white" in the industry. White, neutral sunlight is rated at 5,000 or 5,600 K. Studio north light is closer to 6500 K and above that, the pure blue sky can go all the way up to 10,000 K.

This scale can be confusing or counterintuitive for artists, because the bluish paint colors that we call "cool" are associated with the light that is emitted at higher temperatures, while "warm" colored light comes from cooler sources.
Wikipedia: Color Temperature

Painting While Facing the Light

How can you capture light in a painting while facing toward the light? I've got a new video that you can watch here or on YouTube.

The technique uses watercolor, gouache, and pastel over a casein priming to capture the feeling of objects against a bright sky. I also discuss whether it ‘breaks the rules’ to combine gouache, watercolor and other mixed media.
Should Watercolors Be Purely Transparent?
Contre Jour Lighting
Light Spill

Volumetric Lighting

Volumetric lighting is a concept from 3D digital graphics that can be helpful for painters to consider.
Volumetric Lighting
Screenshot from the game Fallout 4
When smoky or dusty atmosphere is illuminated from behind, sunbeams appear.

We painters tend to think of these beams in two-dimensional terms, but it's good to remember that they occupy a specific volume of 3D space between the source and the subject.

Volumetric Lighting
Still from "The Man Who Wasn't There" directed by
the Coen Brothers, cinematography by Roger Deakins
If the light comes from a sharp, hard source (as opposed to a soft, diffuse one), it can take on a particular shape with fairly sharp edges. The slices of light are most visible against dark background areas.
Volumetric Lighting
Albert Bierstadt, Lander's Peak

Volumetric Lighting
The light takes on its form as it passes through the opening in the clouds, and you can see its effect as it travels to the selective areas it illuminates.
Light and Form, Part 1
Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter
How Fluorescent Colors WorkFan Ho's Bounded LightKomorebiPainting a Sunset Glow EffectHopper's Light: Evocative or Illogical?Painting a Spotlight EffectFishermenLight TemperaturePainting While Facing the LightVolumetric Lighting

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