Let There Be Light!

Learning to see as an artist is perhaps a lifelong task, requiring countless hours of observation, comparison and reproduction of our real life subjects. This is a particularly critical process when it comes to analyzing and matching color, and the practice over time can’t be shortcut. If one is going to invest a great deal of time and energy in learning how to work with color and paint, it only makes sense to get the lighting in the studio correct right from the outset.

The Studio by Carl Larsson, watercolor painting, 1895.
The Studio by Carl Larsson, watercolor painting, 1895.

Daylight is considered to be the best light, especially north light (in the northern hemisphere). However, north light doesn’t remain perfectly constant throughout the day, only more constant than light from any other direction. So, artists often augment their natural window light with artificial light, and this is where things get complicated. There are many types of light bulbs sold as “natural” or “balanced” (e.g. like daylight), but not all of them deliver the color rendition quality and brightness that artists need. In our studios, we have twin banks of incandescent track lights plus twin Velux skylights, plus twin Luxo type combination lamps which can be fitted with incandescent and fluorescent type bulbs. While this is enough “horsepower” to provide adequate brightness for painting at night, the color rendition from a night of painting has always been disappointing during the light of day and has required repainting. Thus began our search for a better lamp bulb. But first, we needed to educate ourselves and understand some of the technical terms used to describe and measure artificial light.

Color Temperature

The color temperature of lamps is measured on the Kelvin (K) scale, which is based on heating up carbon to extremely high temperatures to produce different colors. For example, carbon heated to 2426.85 degrees Celsius equals a Kelvin rating of 2700 and is yellowish-white, while 5126.85 Celsius equals 5400 K, is bluish-white and approximates noon daylight. The higher the Kelvin, the cooler the light. Household incandescents are 2500-3000 K, regular fluorescents are 4000-5000 K, and north light (blue sky) is anywhere from 7500-10000 K.

However, if one wants balanced color rendition, simply buying the right temperature bulb may not work, exactly. The reason for this is that different bulbs render the color spectrum in different amounts.

Color Rendering Index (CRI)

CRI indicates a bulb’s ability to illuminate the full color spectrum accurately to our eyes. Natural daylight has a CRI of 100, so that is what we are trying to get near to in a lamp. Bulbs with a CRI over 90 and a 5000-5500 K temperature rating are ideal for an artist’s studio.


Unlike wattage, which only describes how much power a bulb consumes, Lumens describe how bright a light actually is – its output – and are the best measure to use for brightness. The higher the Lumens, the brighter the light. Compact fluorescents and LEDs consume far fewer watts, but produce an equal or greater amount of Lumens as compared to standard incandescent bulbs. (A 9-watt LED produces 450 Lumens, the same as a 29-watt Halogen bulb).

Lux or Footcandles

Lux is the level of brightness at a particular distance from the light source, and is what really matters where the level of light on our easel or subject is concerned. (One Lux is equal to one Lumen reflected off of a square meter of surface.) Of course, the further from the light source, the lower the Lux level, but more important, light intensity (Lux) decreases faster than the distance from the light does (the inverse square law). So it is important not to place your lights too high up in the ceiling or too far away.

To read more about studio lighting and get our recommendations for which bulbs or fixtures are best for artist studios, be sure to check out Seeing the Light, Professional Lighting Solutions for the Artist’s Studio.

–John and Ann


Related Posts:


The Artist's Life Blog
John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.