Time Lapse of a Studio Landscape

Here is a short, two minute, time lapse video of a large studio landscape I painted over the last couple of weeks. After buying a ton of winter gear for plein air snowscapes we’ve had a really warm, snow-free winter, and I’ve had colds and flu for two months and been stuck inside the whole time. On the bright side, I did manage to get a lot of studio work finished.

This painting was enlarged from a plein air sketch I originally did on Diaz Beach at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa two years ago. I also did a number of drawings to design the composition and I had photographs that I used for information in the areas which my sketch didn’t cover. Even though I had thought out the composition that I wanted with drawings, as you can see in the video I often make changes after I get started as it is easier to see what works and what doesn’t on the large canvas.

I’ve added some annotations in the video to explain some of my decisions while working and I explain some compositional rules. I feel it’s important to reiterate that, while I believe it’s important to understand rules in painting, often the paintings that we remember -the ones that really stay with us for a long time- are precisely the ones which break those rules.

That said, the compositional error of having major elements all the same size is something I do feel hurts a lot of paintings, some of mine included. It is something artists should be aware of.

Landscape painting in oils of Diaz Beach at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa by Marc Dalessio

Diaz Beach, the Cape of Good Hope. 120 x 150 cm, oil on linen.

Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

Update for 2021: I have a new (short) post, and a video with my updated thoughts on how to photograph artwork with a DSLR.

This is the previous post:
When I wrote about photographing paintings last time, I discussed hiring professionals and the equipment they use. In the years since that post, digital camera technology has developed a great deal and in a direction which works well for photographing paintings.

What an artist needs in a photograph of their work are the correct colors, values, and chroma of the piece, with a distortion-free lens, in a very high resolution which can show the detail in the brushwork, as well as the varying sharpness and softness of the edges. For years the best way to do this was with a medium format camera with a digital back. The price for this equipment could run easily into tens of thousands of dollars. The major recent change in consumer digital photography is that the camera companies have engaged in what technology writers derogatorily refer to as the ‘megapixel war’. This race for better sensors with higher pixel counts has pushed the capabilities of DSLR sensors into the range of the low-end digital backs, potentially saving the DIY painter a ton of money.

Obviously, hiring a professional photographer will achieve better results. They will have better equipment and the experience to know how to use it. They are also incredibly expensive (in Italy I paid €100 per photo, or about €1000 for an hour’s work). You can buy a whole set up for the price, and since photographing paintings is really a one-trick pony, getting it good enough isn’t that difficult.

To photograph artwork well one needs the following equipment: A tripod, proper lighting covered by polarized film, a color calibration system and gray card, a decent DSLR body which can be tethered to a computer, a computer with tethering software, a good macro (micro) lens with a circular polarizing filter, and software to edit and archive the work.

First place the painting on an easel with two bright, full-spectrum, lighting sources at 45 degree angles to the artwork, put the camera on a tripod so the lens is parallel to the surface of the painting, as shown below. Lights, painting and camera should be at the same height. There should be no other light sources, and anything white that can cause a glare on the painting should be covered.  Professional studio photographers recommend not using the camera’s auto white balance, so I first set my white balance in the camera to 5400K (which is similar to the color temperature of the light given off by my bulbs). I then made a preset in the camera, photographed a group of paintings over and over, and tweaked the color and contrast settings until my painting looked somewhat correct when the image first comes out of the camera.

How to set up to photograph artwork.
My set-up for photographing paintings.

Put your calibration card in front of the painting, photograph it, then run it through the included software (if needed convert RAW to DNG with Adobe’s free DNG converter). The software finds the color squares, measures them and makes a preset for your camera. Save the preset. Remove the calibration card and put a gray card next to the painting.

Image of the screen for an X-Rite ColorChecker Passport
X-Rite ColorChecker Passport software screen.

Photograph the painting by first putting the camera in mirror-up mode (or set the remote connection to use mirror-up mode). Set ISO to the lowest number, usually 100, and operational mode should be aperture priority or manual (program mode will work too if you can change the aperture setting). Set image type to RAW. Set the lens to manual focus mode. Turn the polarizer on the lens until the glare on the painting is gone.

Next turn on live-view monitoring in the tethering software on your computer, put the tethered image in full-screen mode, zoom in to the maximum and manually focus the shot by hand. If your tethering software can take the photo in mirror-up mode, shoot from the computer screen, otherwise use a shutter-release cable or remote. Do not use the shutter-release button on the camera as it can move slightly and blur the shot. Experiment with various f-stops to find the sharpest for your lens, normally with a macro lens the middle range from f/4 to f/11 will be best.

Import the photo into your editing software and apply the calibration preset (click the eyedropper on the grey card if the white balance is off). Make any other corrections, i.e. rotation, crop, lens profile adjustment, etc… I then tag the paintings with the year, location and subject, so I can find them easily later. I’ve also made export presets for all the possible uses I’ll have for the photos. It makes preparing images trivial.

Tina Under the Olive Tree close up.

Some tips for larger paintings: If you don’t have polarizing sheets, the lights can be at angles greater than 45 degrees to reduce glare. If there are problems with getting an even light across a large painting, find an area with even lighting and take multiple photographs, moving the painting on a flat plane at the same distance from the camera until you have photographs of sections of the whole painting. Then use stitching software such as Adobe Photoshop,  PTGui or the free Microsoft ICE to put the individual images together. This method can also be used to get ultra-high resolution images of larger paintings while using a low-megapixel camera. With a bit of work you can capture an amount of detail which would give medium format cameras a run for their money. Subtle HDR is another idea if the value range is too great for the camera.

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Self Portraits over the Years

Every year on my birthday I paint a self portrait. Many I’ve abandoned and destroyed, some years I skipped it, and I lost a hard disk a few years back with the only images of some of them. These are the ones that survived. It’s interesting for me to look back over the years to see the change in my understanding of drawing and painting.

My early attempts were pretty bad. The first two are from my three years at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The art department there wasn’t very didactic, and students were left to their own devices for the most part. All my technical knowledge at this stage was from books. Notice the poor compositions, the poor handling, the poor understanding of form…etc.

Self Portraits from my UCSC days. 1989-1992

Self Portraits from my UCSC days. 1989-1992

The second two are from my first years at Charles H. Cecil studios. Notice in the painting the over-modelling of the hair as well as the poor design and annoying fuzziness in the clothes,

Early Cecilian Self Portraits. 1993-4

Early Cecilian Self Portraits. 1993-4

The portrait on the left was from 2002 (I think), and it starts to show a more mature style. Better design overall, better handling of the paint, and a more successful rendering of atmosphere. On the right is a sketch of Saint Mark’s Church in Venice as I was there on a plein air trip for my birthday one year.

Self Portrait from 2002(?) and Saint Marc's Church.

Self Portrait from 2002(?) and Saint Marc’s Church .

The next three portraits are recent and are more ambitious in scope, being 3/4 and full length with backgrounds. One thing about self portraits is that they can be a great way to experiment with new materials and techniques. The first one was one of the more complicated portraits I had ever set up, and the objects in the background were selected to describe aspects of my life. The second painting was painted on a much heavier weave of canvas than I am used to, and the last one was my first attempt at an outdoor portrait.

Self Potrait, 2007

Self Portrait, 2005.

Self Portrait, 2006

Self Portrait, 2007

Outdoor Self Portrait, 2008

Outdoor Self Portrait, 2008.

Here is a quick video (2 minutes) showing a time-lapse of this year’s self portrait. My experiment this year was to do the reverse of a grisaille, so I did the underpainting with a high chroma and glazed and scumbled the grays, greens, and browns over it.

(Update: Here is the final image.)

Self Portrait, 2010.

Improvement in oil painting is not a linear progression in my opinion. The ability to see improves before technical skill, and we often have difficulty assessing honestly exactly how our work looks. Below is my attempt at graphing the progression.

(Being my first attempt at visually interpreting quantitative information, it probably looks similar to the self portraits at the top of the post.)

Studio Lighting Part II – Artificial Light

Our fake north-light window.

Our fake north-light window.

On the shortest day of the year, I thought it would be fitting to do a post about using an artificial (or electric, artificial sounds so pejorative) lighting setup for studio painting.

For many years I would only work under natural light, but I was losing so much painting time in the winters that I needed to do something. As I was used to painting with a north facing window, the solution for me was to create a fake north-lit window.

For our studio lighting setup, we built a light box with 3 florescent tubes of different temperatures  (4500K, 5500K, and 6000K) and covered the studio side of the box with tracing paper to diffuse the light. At the moment though the light is too yellow, so I would like to switch out the 4500 and 5500K bulbs with 6500K ones. When the light is too yellow, it makes it harder to see yellows while you’re painting (and any color mixed with yellow, i.e. greens and oranges) so for the time being I try to avoid working on areas that require those colors under our light box. For more information on specific bulb brands check out Steve Kim’s great blog post on the subject.

Eventually I will also swap out the tracing paper for a Barrisol membrane to diffuse the light.

The box rolls on a track in front of our real window so we can move it over our natural light source in the evenings to keep working without any change in the shadow pattern. At the moment it is installed a bit too low, next time I have access to scaffolding we need to raise it a few feet.

Another trick I use to paint in the evenings is just to use the clip-on desk light attached to my easel so that my canvas, palette and reference sketches are lit with a blue daylight bulb, and then use a projector in the darkened studio to project a photograph to work from.

While working from artificial light is never ideal, this is the best studio lighting setup I’ve come across.

(Part one was a post on using natural light).

Studio lighting part I – Natural light

This is the first of a two-part post on studio lighting. When I worked at Charles Cecil studios, a few of us were present at the opening of new studios and had to set up the lighting. It was a lot of work, but I came away with a good understanding of how to control light in a painting studio. (Apologies in advance for my photographic skills, but I hope to pick up a better low-light camera soon).

Charles Cecil's studio on Borgo San Frediano.

Charles Cecil's studio on Borgo San Frediano.

Most painters know that you need north light to avoid having direct sunlight moving around the room while you work (in the northern hemisphere only! I’ve heard of painters setting up north-lit studios in the southern hemisphere, only to have the studio blasted with sunlight). What they often don’t realize is how important it is to control the bounced light from outside as well.

One of the main errors I see in studio set-ups is not keeping reflected light off the ceiling. In a north-facing studio, anything you see from the window is facing south, and reflecting a lot of light. If you are blocking off the lower part of the window as most painters do, the light is still bouncing up onto the ceiling from the ground outside, and then coming down around the room. The best way to keep light off the ceiling is to put a hood over the top of the window. You can check the walls opposite the window to make sure the hood is keeping the reflected light out of the room. In my studio we just have a black tarp attached above the window with a wooden rod at the other end which is attached to a hook in the center of the ceiling.

Daniel Graves's studio in Piazza Donatello.

Daniel Graves's studio in Piazza Donatello.

The lower half of the windows in most studios are covered to get a higher light source and also keep out colored light reflecting off buildings and trees. Generally speaking, the smaller and higher your light source is, the more half-tones you see. In the photo of Daniel Graves’s studio above, you can see how he has run a curtain perpendicular from the middle of the window in order to have different amounts of light on the model and his working space. The right side of the window has a high, small light source for the model. The left side is flooded with light so he can see what he is doing.

Ben Fenske in his studio in Piazza Donatello.

Ben Fenske in his studio in Piazza Donatello.

Ben Fenske paints some wonderful interiors with unusual lighting and in his studio he has light bouncing off the light walls, but still keeps light off the ceiling. In my Piazza Donatello studio (photo to be added soon) we have the walls covered with dark cloth to keep the subjects lit only from the window. In theory, if we ever needed reflected light, we could set up a light cloth on the other side of the subject. In practice, however, most traditional, naturally lit, paintings have only one light source. For portraiture especially, where working fast is of the essence, having a relatively simple pattern of light and shade makes everything much easier. Aesthetically, I also prefer the warm purple shadows you get with vermilion and black when painting a model lit with the cool light from a blue sky.

I was always taught about Rembrandt’s glazing and scumbling from warm to cool over the course of a portrait and how the different layers gave his sitters this wonderful pearlescent effect. Anyone who has ever painted a portrait under natural light will have noticed that over the course of the painting under changing light effects from the warm reflected light off clouds, to the cool light of the blue skies, chasing the effect naturally results in this layering of warm and cool layers in the paint. Just like so many old masters did before.