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The Color Temperature of Light: Lighting Still Lifes

Cool light, warm light with blocks, oil study
Cool light on the left; warm light on the right; same objects with white background; oils

When painting outdoors, lighting is controlled by the sun, clouds, atmosphere, and time of day. But in the studio you get to choose your lighting source from window light to bulbs of all kinds. In an article about color in the March 2011 Artists Magazine, Scott Burdick suggests an experiment to compare the effect of cool and warm light sources: Set up a still life of primary-colored objects and paint it twice; once under a warm light and again under cool light. That’s what I did in the studies above.

While I’m not sure I captured every nuance (or get the drawing just right), it’s interesting to see how different the same-colored objects and white background cloth look under different “temperatures” of light.

Warm Light. Left: Stroke counting; Right: One-colored shadow
Warm Light. Left: Stroke counting; Right: One-colored shadow

I did these two studies in Peggi Kroll-Roberts‘ studio, with the subjects lit by 150 watt incandescent bulbs which have an even warmer color temperature than the bulbs I used in my two top studies. The actual goal of the study on the left was to paint the scene (cantaloupe and watermelon slices) with as few brush strokes as possible. The assignment for the one on the right was to group and paint the shadows with one color only.

Lighting technical stuff:

Top photo: On the left I used a large 5000K “Natural Light” spiral fluorescent bulb. K for Kelvin is a measure of the color temperature. Higher numbers equal cooler temperatures. 5000K is supposed to be equivalent to bright sun under a blue sky at noon.  On the right I used a 4100K “Bright White” fluorescent bulb. Both are made by Satco/Hi-Pro and are equivalent to 150 watt non-fluorescent bulbs.

Bottom photo: Peggi uses 150 watt regular incandescent bulbs which have a color temperature of around 3,000 K.  The incandescents create stronger, more defined shadows but do get hot, and can easily cook the still life if they’re too close. The fluorescent bulbs stay cooler to the touch, regardless of their color “temperature,” which can be an advantage when lighting delicate objects that are sensitive to heat.

Both Peggi and I use Testrite Fotolite stands with reflectors to hold the bulbs, probably same as this Colorview Artist Lamp. These are excellent light stands and Peggi has a dozen of them in her studio for lighting models and still life set ups.

One reply on “The Color Temperature of Light: Lighting Still Lifes”

I often use a similar exercise in photography, either changing my white balance on the camera from cool to warm or adjusting the tone via filters in Photo Shop. It is amazing how the tone of the lighting can completely change the feel of an image. I find that I tend to gravitate towards warm lighting in my photography as it gives a charming vintage style to my images.


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