It Makes Me See Red

2 Oct 2012

"The last mad throb of red just as it turns green; the ultimate shriek of orange calling all the blues of heaven for relief and support...each color almost regains the fun it must have felt within itself on forming the first rainbow." --Charles Demuth

Birthday Bouquet by Ann Trusty, oil painting. Light temperature chart--a handy reference for artists.
Birthday Bouquet by Ann Trusty, oil painting. Light temperature chart--a handy reference for artists.

As painters, we are intimately involved with the act of representing the effects of light on the world around us. We first learned about the science of light in a course called "Physics for Artists" in college. The physical properties of the electromagnetic radiation that we call light are well-quantified and measured in wavelengths, called Angstroms.

Visible light (to humans) occupies a range between 3800 to 7500 Angstroms. (One Angstrom equals .00000001 centimeter.) Red is the longest wavelength, 6200 to 7500 A, and so has a low frequency, (think: long and steady), which makes it very visible at longer distances--hence the red stop sign.

Red color affects humans on a physiological level as well, and can cause increased heart rate and alertness, also useful for stop signs. It can be an interesting and powerful tool in the hands of an oil painting artist. It may well be in our DNA to be alert to red. Human eyes are more richly endowed with the two cone types set to red and yellow wavelengths than with those sensitive to short, blue-tinged light. Using too much red in a painting might irritate or agitate, but just the right amount makes a Winslow Homer fine art oil painting coalesce into a masterpiece.

Daylight is thought of as predominantly white, but as shown in the chart, actually varies quite a bit in color temperature depending on latitude, season and time of day, from 2000-3000 degrees Kelvin (red-orange) to 10,000º K (blue). For the painter it is important to make note of the relative temperature of the ambient light on a subject, whether indoors or out, because the temperature of the light on a subject determines the colors that will be reflected off it and also the colors of the shadows around it.

North light is valued by the artist for its steadiness throughout the day, but we find it too cool to provide properly balanced white light for our still lives when working in the studio. We augment our north windows with a 3600º K  photo lamp, in front of which we have placed a color-correction filter, which brings the total effect closer to the 5500º - 6000ºK ideal temperature we want. It is an absolute necessity for the artist to understand light and its effects, and getting the light right in the studio is the first step to being able to use color to create moving, evocative works of art. If you are having color problems in your paintings, investigate the temperature of the light you are using.

 We hope you will join us on The Artist's Road for more in-depth articles, step-by-step demonstrations and interviews.

--John and Ann


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kelliott wrote
on 13 Oct 2012 5:52 AM

Wow! You charge money to read your articles on The Artist s Road?

Seriously. There's too much good free stuff out there.