Chapter 8: Painting the Light

While a significant number of intensive colors are found in the semi-dark range, some lighter colors, too, can display impressive degrees of intensity. First among those are yellow and analogous warm (red and orange) hues. Paintings drawn with the use of this palette will look both light and vibrant. To illustrate, let us take Renoir’s Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary (Figure 8.1).

LIFELIKE book: Painting the Light
Figure 8.1. Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary. (1877)

Here, yellow, red, orange and adjacent tones in the same lightness range appear both in their intense and more subdued versions. The other colors, however, do not have the privilege – due to the laws of human perception that we discussed in previous chapters. That is why a light painting that does not contain enough yellow or analogous hues will probably look washed out. A good example illustrating the difference between yellow and other colors in the light palette is Deux Personnages by Pablo Picasso (Figure 8.2).

LIFELIKE book: Painting the Light
Figure 8.2. Pablo Picasso. Deux personnages (Marie-Thérèse et sa soeur lisant). (1934)

Note how in this picture yellow appears brighter than the other colors. Despite the low intensity of most of the hues here (which is unavoidable, since the artist mainly used lighter colors), the entire palette comes together in harmony and does not look unexpressive.

Washed out, muted colors are usually called pastels. In the language of art, cinematography and still photography we also talk about “high key lighting” to describe visual solutions that call for brighter tones in both the main light and the fill (background) light. The resulting images often look too light, and their colors seem too subdued, although I prefer thinking of them as “soft”.

Another notable example that we have to discuss separately is the iconic masterpiece by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Bathing of a Red Horse (Figure 8.3).

LIFELIKE book: Painting the Light
Figure 8.3. Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Bathing of a Red Horse. 1912

The painting uses the lightest tones, yet all of them appear quite intensive. Details fall prey to this set up. Two main colors in this trademark image are red and yellow, both capable of reaching full saturation in the lighter range. The lightness value of the horse figure is between 50 and 65L, while the lightness value of the figure of the boy is 70 to 95L (Figure 8.4). The upper number in each case also represents the highest possible saturation for both colors, respectively. Wash out the red – and it will turn pink. Wash out the yellow – it will merge with white. We can only assume that the artist chose to use the lightest tones that he could without significantly distorting the color values and thus losing intensity. He seems to have realized he was largely sacrificing detalization to achieve this effect.

LIFELIKE book: Painting the Light
Figure 8.4

Should the artist want to add details or higher color gradation in the “red horse” zone, he might have to either use darker tones (which would darken the entire image, too) or, alternatively, mute the colors by reducing their intensity. In the first instance, he would be able to achieve better chromatic variety by manipulating parameters (such as contrast, for example) in a color-diverse lightness range (Figure 8.5), while the second technique would involve “unsticking” colors by washing them out (Figure 8.6).

LIFELIKE book: Painting the Light
Figure 8.5

LIFELIKE book: Painting the Light
Figure 8.6

Petrov-Vodkin, clearly, had something entirely different in mind, and for his artistic needs he only required a handful of oversaturated colors, even if it meant losing some detail along the way. Theoretically speaking, this method could work in photography as well, but it would be very difficult to keep the resulting image both expressive and harmonious. One should also remember that texture of the canvas and brush strokes also play a significant role in shaping our perception of art. In film photography, one can rely on grain to compensate for the lack of texture in the oversaturated areas. Digital photography, however, does not offer any solution to this particular issue. As a result, modern photographers who oversaturate their images lose more tonal variety (through losing out on texture, too) and thus often fail to achieve chromatic harmony in images that would have looked less jarring had they been rendered on canvas or on the grainy film.

We will return to the subject of pure (“clean”) and dirty colors in one of the next chapters.

LIFELIKE: A book on color in digital photography

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