Painting: Composing With Light

Realist painters have a long tradition of using light and shadow to organize their compositions and influence the way viewers respond to their paintings. Here are three well known painters working at different times over a span of 400 years. For each artist light and shadow are important elements that define their work.

oil painting by Georges de La Tour

Georges de La Tour was a French painter active during the first half of the 17th century. He is noted for paintings depicting people in darkened rooms engaged in quiet activity illuminated by a single small light source. De La Tour’s use of bold light and shadow to organize his compositions is a classic example of chiaroscuro – an Italian term for light-dark. The deep shadows in this painting create a sense of mystery while the light of a single flame brings the viewer’s attention to a central point. The illuminated objects around the flame create their own intimate scene within the larger painting.

oil painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

In the late 19th century another French painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, painted scenes of Parisian night life, mostly cabaret performers and customers. Toulouse-Lautrec painted quickly and on location in order to capture the vitality and authenticity of what was in front of him. In this painting the light source is the stage lighting that dominates the lower right side of the composition and focuses our attention on the silhouetted baton of the orchestra’s conductor. The rest of the painting gradually materializes as we look away from the bright lights. The strong light source and the slashing brushstrokes capture the ambience, energy and movement of dance on the stage.

oil painting by Robert Bechtle

Robert Bechtle is a contemporary American painter considered to be one of the first photo-realists. In this painting from the 1960s we see a man and child posing for a snapshot in front of a stucco wall. The sunlight illuminating the scene is bright and uniform across the entire scene. While de La Tour’s lighting created quiet mystery and Toulouse-Lautrec’s lighting captured the energy of a stage performance, Bechtle’s lighting is totally neutral. The flatness of the light reinforces the flatness of the painting’s physical surface. The blue sky, pink wall and cluster of shapes created by the agave plant and human figures are all nearly equal in importance. This painting is as much about colors, shapes and composition as it is about a man and child.

You can find more information about Georges de La Tour here…

Learn more about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec here…

You can see more of Robert Bechtle’s paintings here…

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