Oil Painting: Painting Interior Light

17 Aug 2006

0610gyur1_450x300_2Room interiors provide an excellent opportunity to paint a variety of light intensities, colors, and effects; but they also present challenges in trying to capture the subtleties of forms within those dimly lit spaces.

by Joseph Gyurcsak

Interior scenes are fascinating because they are like theatrical settings in which forms move in and out of the shadows. There is an inherent drama created when a limited number of light sources transforms the color, shape, and identity of objects within a space and turns cast shadows into solid focal points. Some objects lose focus as they move away from the light and take on a mysterious appearance, while others change color and shape depending on their proximity to the light and the color of that illumination.

When observing what occurs in the rooms of my own house, particularly at night, I am endlessly fascinated by that drama. I turn a corner and become inspired by my wife reading a newspaper that reflects the brightness from an overhead chandelier, my son enveloped by the blue light from his computer, or my daughter reading under a shaded lamp. Having discovered this intrigue within our family dwelling, I have a constant supply of new subject matter for my paintings because there are so many variables to work with. And since collectors have responded enthusiastically to almost every painting I’ve created in these spaces, I am encouraged to continue my investigation.

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Before the Easel
2004, oil, 14 x 14.
Private collection.

The concept for these interior scenes develops from the first observation that attracts me to the scene. I try to remember that image throughout the painting process so the finished painting expresses that momentary feeling and vision. In my experience, paintings most often fail when the artist drifts from his or her initial inspiration, so I constantly remind myself where I intend to go and make decisions to get me to that destination.

I make a quick oil sketch of these inspiring scenes on a linen-covered Masonite or birch plywood panel using a limited palette of colors (see sidebar). I paint by volume (mass) and do not rely on line drawing as I much as I did earlier in my career. However, because I believe strongly in maintaining competent drafting skills, I will often execute detailed close-ups of people and rooms in graphite, pen-and-ink, or watercolor.

When working in the rooms of a private home, I use my compact plein air easel for quick setups within the limited space. I use a combo lamp (incandescent and florescent light) on my paintings and palettes for good color balances while I’m mixing and applying paint. I use a lamp stand to support that combo lamp.

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The Mantle
2006, oil, 18 x 24.
Courtesy Bucks Gallery of
Fine Art, Newtown, Pennsylvania.

I use a digital camera to record my reference material for painting. However, the photographs are only guides, and I rely heavily on the information I gather while painting directly from life. When I am in a low-light situation, I set the camera on night- or low-light settings. Sometimes that requires me to photograph the interior with the aid of a camera stand with the camera set on a timer. The digital images can be further adjusted in the computer for my liking—a great advantage over photographic film.

In general, there are three or four main spots of color within a room, so I begin painting by blocking in those large shapes and avoiding details. I premix the colors on my palette using a palette knife, rather than a brush, to keep the colors clean. Once I have mixed a slab of color, I scoop some up on the knife and hold it near the painting surface to check the accuracy of the relative value and temperature. If it’s not correct, I ask myself if the mixture needs to be warmer or cooler, lighter or darker, more intense or neutral. I then use a bristle brush to apply the mixture, aiming to fill the entire canvas quickly so I get a sense of where the painting is headed.

If the interior space is illuminated by sunlight through a door or window, it will generally be cooler and within a middle range of tones, and the shadows will be warm. Conversely, if the room is lit by incandescent light, the middle-tone areas will be warm and the shadows will be cool. This isn’t always the case, but it is a general guide that is helpful in evaluating the scene. Once the general tones are in place, I photograph my subject so that, if the light begins to change, I will have a reference with which to gauge my developing picture. When I’ve committed myself to a certain pattern of light and shadow, I want to make sure the logic of that arrangement remains consistent. I then continue refining the large spots of color, looking for variations within those areas where I can add and refine details. The study usually takes me an hour to complete.

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Late Night
2006, oil, 24 x 36.
Collection the artist.

As I am making this rather loosely painted sketch, I am most concerned with defining the color and intensity of the light, as well as the shapes that are either revealed or suggested by that light. The scene may be established by a subtle light coming through a door or window on an overcast or gray day, by the dominating light from a reading lamp, by the flickering light from a candle, by the soft light emanating from another room, or, most likely, a combination of all of those. Additionally, the surfaces within the room will reflect those lights in different ways depending on whether they are made of polished metal, glass, or fabric. Doors, windows, picture frames, and polished furniture become strong graphic shapes defined by reflected light; while fabric coverings and rugs envelop objects in soft shadows.

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Sketch for
Winter Interior

2004, oil, 11 x 14.
Courtesy Bucks Gallery of
Fine Art, Newtown,
Pennsylvania.

As with any painting, the presence of a figure will suggest a story line or create a situation of interest. An artist can either play up that story or make it less important by blurring facial features and gestures. For example, while visiting my brother and his family in their home, I saw a combination of figures and shadows that recalled John Singer Sargent’s painting El Jaleo, in which a Spanish dancer twists in the light to reveal the odd position of her moving arm as well as a group of musicians sitting in the shadows behind her. What makes this painting brilliant is that it is first about light and shadow, and second about the story of the performance. I tried to convey the same sense of light and shadow in Time, using a photograph of the people assembled in my brother’s home. Another favorite painting of mine, Late Night, is of my wife sleeping in our daughter’s room with the blue light from the television combining with a warm light from the closet. Here again I wanted the picture to be as much about the light and shadow as it was about my wife.

As an example of how I paint a study, look at Sketch for Winter Interior. The motivation for this was the violet light outside contrasting with the warm light from the lamp inside the space. I quickly set up my easel to record the dusk light before it faded. I had about 45 minutes before the light changed. Rapid painting and an accurate color mixture helped me capture the moment.

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Sketch for Three
2005, oil, 9 x 12.
Collection the artist.

The painting Three was the result of a small oil sketch and a photographic reference that guided me through the creation of the large studio painting. Most of my sketches are done from life, but occasionally I have to rely on photographs if the scene is fleeting or if I’m unable to set up my oil-painting supplies in the room of someone’s home. The sketches are small—usually 9" x 12"—and give me a sense of the design, color harmonies, and drawing needed to bring the sketch to the full scale of a studio painting.

After completing a small oil sketch, I determine if the image holds enough interest to be worth enlarging in the studio. If so, I approach the painting process in much the same way so I can convey my original vision. The only significant difference is that I paint the larger pictures on stretched linen or cotton canvas rather than on panels, and I modify my paint with one of two mediums: Gamblin Galkyd G-Gel or Utrecht alkyd glazing medium. I block in the essential notes of color from a limited palette, mixing a small amount of Gamblin Gamsol medium to thin the oil colors. Once the general tones are established, I begin using Utrecht alkyd glazing medium or G-Gel to build up the paint passages, if I expect to work on the painting for several consecutive sessions. I continue using the medium to speed up the drying time of the paint until I reach a point at which passages of paint need to be merged and refined with slower-drying colors, and at that point I work with unmodified paint until the painting is completed.

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Three
2005, oil, 30 x 40.
Collection the artist.

I paint a wide range of subjects—landscapes, still lifes, and figures—but I especially like developing interior scenes because they depict the people, objects, and spaces that are essential parts of my life; and because they offer a challenging opportunity to study and capture an intriguing combination of lights and shadows.   

About the Artist
Joseph Gyurcsak’s art education began at the age of 12 when his parents bought him a drawing table and signed him up for lessons. He continued his art studies by earning a scholarship to Parsons The New School for Design and later studied at The School of Visual Arts, both in New York City. The artist began his professional career in the late 1980s as a freelance illustrator working for advertising and publishing clients. Although the artist cites many master artists as being influential to his career—namely Hawthorne, Hensche, Sargent, Sorolla, Zorn, Metcalf, Inness, and Whistler—it is John Koch’s interior paintings, which “are masterful in lighting, composition, and overall feeling,” that inspired Gyurcsak to paint indoor scenes. He is currently the resident artist/brand manager at Utrecht Art Supply and teaches and lectures around the country on behalf of the company. The artist is represented by Bucks Gallery of Fine Art, in Newtown, Pennsylvania; Somerville Manning Gallery, in Greenville, Delaware; Stodgill & James Gallery, in Ridgeland, Mississippi; and The Thistle Down Gallery, in Spring Lake, New Jersey. For more information on Gyurcsak, visit his website: www.josephgyurcsak.com.

 

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Comments

Curtis B. Osborne wrote
on 25 Aug 2006 9:43 AM
Joe, Congratulations on the magazine article. If there is anyone that deserves to be recognized it's you ! I am so proud of you and what you have accomplished. Curtis
Debbie Osborne-Levy wrote
on 6 Sep 2006 9:57 AM
Joe What a beautiful article! I'm glad you are getting the recognition you deserve.
J Emerson wrote
on 31 Oct 2006 11:18 PM
Joe, going through my emails, and realized that I had not left you a comment. I am sure you know I applaud your perserverance and your Art. Simply amazing stuff.... and I do mean it. Be well