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Building Art Beyond the Image
From the memoirs of portrait painter Vigee-LeBrun

Also see the Stroke of Genius Portrait Artist Forum
for many art-related posts by Karin Wells
• • • •

Achieving Traditional Lighting with New Technology
A Single Source of Light
by Karin Wells
Edited by Lori Simons

I've always loved the paintings of the Old Masters and often have copied their works in order to understand the masters' use of light and composition. Their lighting is simple, elegant, and comes from a single light source. Over the years, I've devised a method of achieving this single source lighting with the use of my camera and artificial illumination equipment. Because I personally find a natural daylight source to be inconsistent and often paint into the night without a model, I heavily rely on my camera for reference "notes".

I've found that it is difficult, if not impossible to produce a good portrait from a poor
photograph. For example, shadows that look wonderful when you have the model sitting in front of you, can unhappily appear as solid black in the resulting photograph. Another inferior result comes from the use of high-speed film in low light, making the photo grainy. There are two variables that determine how much light intensity is needed - lens aperture and film speed.

The faster the film speed and the larger the aperture setting, the more grainy and inferior the resulting photo. What a portrait artist needs is sharp, brilliant pictures with good depth of field. The only way to get this, especially with moving children, is to have lots of steady light, a slow speed film, and moderate or high apertures.

The placement of the light in relationship to the subject is critical. As a rule of thumb, when photographing most clients, I set up my light to the left of the camera and above the subject. This placement will produce shadows appearing in a pattern that photographers call, "Rembrandt Lighting". Since paintings, like books, read from left to right, this direction of light is oftentimes the most pleasing. With older clients, I like to keep the lighting as frontal as possible in order to minimize the appearance of creases and wrinkles on the skin.

To reflect light back into the shadow slide of the model (so that the shadows don't look black in the resulting photo), I place reflectors (white cardboard will do) opposite the light source and "off camera". Bounce more light than your eye tells you to back into the shadows, so that you will be able to see detail within the shadows. Most professional photographers use another light to accomplish this, but I urge you to resist the temptation. I find that the results can be excellent when served by a single light source and a reflecting board.

I often photograph my subject with a neutral background. My discovery of a portable "Background System in a Bag" by Photek, makes traveling to the client's location a breeze. It consists of a large, 8'x12', pearl gray material with collapsible supports. In composing the actual painting, this neutral background allows me the flexibility to add objects or landscapes that I've photographed separately.

I use a 35mm Canon EOS Elan camera (auto focus) with a Tamron 28-200 zoom lens. I prefer a slow (160 ISO) professional film, Kodak Portra. It is a professional film that gives me accurate skin tones, clear detail, and soft shadows.

Lately I have been substituting a digital camera. I have the Olympus Camedia E-10 with the optional rechargeable lithium polymer battery which can power the camera for long periods of time. This digital camera works beautifully with all of the equipment listed here.

The "White Lightning Ultra 600" studio flash manufactured by Paul C. Buff, Inc. of Nashville, TN., illuminates the subject while showing exactly where the shadows fall. It is lightweight and portable, and allows me to shoot at a faster speed, thus eliminating the absolute need for a tripod. I have found that it is essential for me to have this kind of a strobe light in order to be able to photograph a small child who cannot sit still.

I find that a light modifier provides light that wraps gently around the form. I use the Apollo 28" square model with a recessed diffuser panel. It is manufactured by Wescott and attaches to my studio flash unit like an umbrella.

I also use a Wein light meter (any will do) to determine the aperture on my camera. When I click the shutter, a strobe ring at the base of the modeling light automatically flashes and illuminates the subject with the correct amount of light.

It takes time, study and practice to produce beautifully lighted photographs for use in
portraiture. My system has worked well for me to mimic the single light source.


Studio flash unit:
Paul C. Buff , Inc.
2725 Bransford Ave.
Nashville, TN 37204
Toll Free: 1-800-443-5542

All other equipment, both new and used:
B&H Photo
420 Ninth Avenue
New York, NY 10001
Toll Free: 1-800-947-9941


Building Art Beyond the Image

by Karin Wells
Excerpts from a talk by Karin Wells at the Portrait Society of
America’s Annual Conference in Chicago, April 2001.

The real measure of a painter’s success is that his or her knowledge can be applied in all cases and not just "randomly or occasionally." Talent alone is not nearly enough. Knowledge will enable the artist to self-critique accurately and consistently raise the overall level of his or her work. I think that it is OK to paint what you see, but it is much more important to paint what you know. The human eye is not always "sophisticated" or "trained" enough to observe reality.

There is a lot of false or misunderstood "knowledge" that "sounds right" but unfortunately cannot consistently be applied to improve the artist’s work. I have been very fortunate to have been taught by Mr. Numael Pulido, and have had an opportunity to copy the works of some of the Old Masters. I have found Vermeer to be the best teacher of all the Old Masters and below are some of the things I have learned about realistic painting in a nutshell.


1. Build Composition with three values. You must represent a dark tone, a middle tone, and a light tone.

2. Clearly define the silhouettes of both the positive and negative shapes early in the painting and make sure that these shapes are interesting and not repetitive or uniform.

3. Use only a single light source. If possible, have the single light source come from the upper left.


1. Beginning in the under layer, the light and shadow must be clearly defined in thick paint.

2. Light flows across an object in a path from the center of intensity (highlight) and should not be interrupted by dark shadows in its flow. (I.e., shadows appear lighter in the light).

3. Connect shadows into a pattern whenever possible.

4. Separate light in a consistent manner from shadow. No light should appear in a shadow and no dark shadows should appear in the light. (That is, shadows that break light must be lighter than any single shadow in a shadow area).

5. An effective way to add “reflected light” to a shadow is to mix pure color pigments from opposite sides of the color wheel to get a neutral color. Then add enough white to match the surrounding value of the shadow.

6. Whenever possible, find and make a pattern of connected light.

7. Utilize shadows as distinct and important design elements.

8. Light is always built with thick opaque paint.

9. Shadows are to be thinly painted.

10. A halftone is formed on an object where the shadow meets the light. The transition between light and shadow may occur very slowly or very quickly and this will determine the character of the halftone.

11. I begin with an imprimatura (aprox. the value of brown wrapping paper) by painting light as it emerges from this cool middle or halftone.

12. A pleasing light/shadow or shadow/light ratio is 1:3.


1. There are no hard edges in nature. Blend and soften your edges!

2. Perspective and anatomy ought to be depicted as true and accurate.

3. Man made objects with a straight edge should be painted with a "ruler" (i.e., tabletop).

4. Distant objects tend to become "bluer/cooler" as they recede. Close objects show more "yellow/warmth."

5. Turn edges of objects away from the viewer by making them cooler.

6. Paint objects in the distance less distinctly than objects that are near the viewer.

7. As highlight transitions into deep shadow, warm and cool tones begin to
alternate to create each layer that defines form. The overlapping of warm and cool color is essential in building realistic form. (The terms “warm” and “cool” color is relative to the specific color used…i.e., warm and cool blue…)

Highlight is cool. The lightest value paint on an object.

Light is warm. Light value paint.

Halftone (where light and shadow meet) is cool. Mid-value paint.

Shadow is warm. Dark value paint.

Deep Shadow (cast shadow at the origin) is hot. Darkest value paint.


1. Some representation of the following five colors should be included in a painting: red, yellow, blue, black, and white. (“Shadows” do not count as black.)

2. Differentiate and define a background, a middle ground and a foreground in each painting. These levels of depth should eventually be integrated with “lost” and “found” edges.

My Palette
Titanium White
Zinc White
Yellow Ochre Pale (Windsor Newton)
Yellow Ochre
Cadmium Orange
Raw Sienna
Burnt Sienna
Alizarin Crimson
Indian Red
Raw Umber
Burnt Umber
Prussian Blue
Ivory Black

I use Windsor Newton’s Liquin as a medium. I also use BioShield thinner (citrus based) rather than turpentine.


From the memoirs of portrait painter Vigee-LeBrun

This excerpt is from a book that is no longer in print and I found it to be
most interesting and want to share it with other portrait painters.

Excerpted from the memoirs of portrait painter Elizabeth Vigee-LeBrun (1755-1842)

“I have decided to add here at the end of my memoirs the advice that I wrote niece, Mme J. Tripier Le Franc, thinking that it might also be of interest to others.


You should always be ready half an hour before the model arrives. This helps to gather your thoughts and is essential for several reasons:

1 You should never keep anyone waiting.
2 The palette must be prepared.
3 People or business should not interfere with your concentration.


You must sit your model down, but at a higher level then yourself. Make sure that the women are comfortable, that they have something to lean against, and a stool beneath their feet.

You should be as far away from your model as possible; this is the only way to catch the true proportion of the features and their correct alignment, as well as the sitter's bearing and particular mannerisms which it is essential to note; the same applies when trying to achieve anoverall likeness. Do we not recognize people we know from behind, even when we cannot seetheir face?

When painting a man's portrait, especially that of a young man, he should stand up for a moment before you begin so that you can sketch the general outline of the body. If you were to sketch him sitting down, the body would not appear as elegant and the head would appear too close to the shoulders. This is particularly necessary for men since we are more used to seeing themstanding than seated.

Do not paint the head too high on the canvas since it makes the model look too tall, though if you draw the head too low, the model will become too small; when drawing the body, take care to allow more space on the side to which the body is turned.

You should also have a mirror positioned behind you so that you can see both the model and your painting at the same time, and it should be in a place where you can refer to it all the time; it is the best guide and will show up faults clearly.

Before you begin, talk to your model. Try several different poses. Choose not only the most comfortable but also the most fitting for the person's age and character, so that the pose will only add to the likeness. Likewise for the head, which should either be facing forward or at a three-quarter turn; this adds to the resemblance, especially for the public; the mirror might alsohelp you decide upon this point.

You should try and complete the head, or at least the basic stages, in three or four sittings; allow an hour and a half for each sitting, two hours at the most, or the models will grow bored and impatient and their expression will change noticeably, a situation to be avoided at all costs; this is why you should allow models to rest and aim to keep their attention for as long as possible. My experience with women has led me to believe the following: you must flatter them, say they are beautiful, that they have fresh complexions etc. This puts them in a good humour and they will hold their position more willingly. The reverse will result in a visible difference. You must also tell them that they are marvelous at posing; they will then try harder to hold their pose. Tell them not to bring their friends to the sitting, for they all want to give advice and will spoil everything, although you may consult artists and people of taste. Do not be discouraged if some people cannot find any likeness in your portraits; there are a great many people who do not know how to look at a painting.

While you are working on the head of a woman dressed in white, drape her in a neutral-coloured fabric like grey or light green, so that your gaze does not wander from the model's head; if however you wish to paint her in white, keep a little white fabric to drapearound the head, for it too should receive some of the reflected light.

The background to the sitter should in general be a subtle and uniform tone, neither too light nor too dark; if the background is sky then the rules are different and you should put something blue behind the head.

Whether you are painting in pastels or oils, you should build up from the darkest colour, then paint the mid-tones and finally the highlights.

Always thicken the highlights and always make them golden. Between the highlights and the mid-tones there is another tone not be overlooked, which has tints of violet, blue and green. Study van Dyck. The mid-tones should be broken up and less thick than the highlights, and the highlighting on the head should emphasise the bone and muscle, the latter being weaker than the former.

Immediately after the first layer comes the flesh tone, chosen according to the complexion of the sitter; this will eventually blend with the mingling, shifting mid-tones.

Shadow must be strong but transparent at the same time, that is to say not a thick but a ripe tone, accompanied by a strong reddish touch in the cavities, such as the eye socket, the nostrils and the darker, interior parts of the ear etc. The colour of the cheeks, if they are unpowdered, should have a peach tone in the hollows and a golden rose colour on the more fleshy parts, the two colours merging imperceptibly with the highlights to emphasise the facial bones which should be golden. There should always be highlights on the brow bone, the cheek bone near the nose, above the upper lip, in the corner of the lower lip and at the top of the chin and they should always blend in with the surrounding tones. You should take care that the highlights diminish gradually and that the most salient and consequently the brightest part is always the most luminous. On the head, the sparkling lights, both sharp and diffuse, are either in the pupil or in the white of the eye, depending upon the position of the head and the eye; these two highlights often give way to others less golden in the middle of the upper eyelid, in the middle of the lower eyelid, or at least along some part of it, according to the way light falls upon the head, then on the middle of the nose, on the bridge and the lower lip. The sharper the nose, the finer the light should be. Never use a heavy consistency of paint on the pupils: they will look more real if they have a transparent quality. You should paint in as much detail as possible, take care not to give the sitter an ambiguous gaze, and ensure that you make the pupils round. Some people have large pupils and others small, but they are always perfectly round. The upper half of the pupil is always intercepted by the upper eyelid, but if the person is angry you will often see the whole pupil. When the eye smiles, the lower half of the pupil is intercepted and covered by the lower eyelid. The white of the eye in shadow should be a pure and pristine tone, and the mid-tones, although they are not quite the natural colour (this is so with any object you paint), should never look grey or dirty. Sometimes the eye should reflect light from the nose and share some of its shadow. The eyelashes in the shaded part are clear and stand out bright and this is why you should use ultramarine when painting a light part that is in shadow. Observe the eye socket, which should be darker or lighter depending on its shape. It is made up of shadow and highlights, mid-tones and reflections from the nose. The eyebrow should be prepared in warm tones and one should be able to see the flesh beneath the gleam of the hairs which should be light and delicate.

The setting of the eye is always painted in delicate blueish or violet tones, depending upon the whiteness and delicacy of the skin. Take care not to be too heavy with the latter or the eye will look as though it's full of tears. For this reason one should sometimes break into the blue tones with gold, but always cautiously.

Observe the forehead well; it is vital for a true likeness and is a very important key to the personality. When the forehead has a square but prominent bone, such as in the self portraits of Raphael, Rubens or van Dyck, there is a definite concentration of light on these prominent areas. The first is at the top of the forehead, just beneath the hairline. It is then interrupted and reappears near the eyebrow. This in turn gives way to the colour of the temple where there will often be a blue vein visible, especially if the sitter's skin is very fine. In between these highlights is the natural flesh tone which fades into the centre. The light returns, if more feebly, on the same bone on the other side. This mid-tone mingles softly with all the other mid-tones, eventually becoming the shadow that defines the shape of the brow bone. After this shadow, there is a slightly golden reflection, depending upon the colour of the hair. Above the eyebrow, the tone should become a little warmer: the accumulation of these hairs has the same effect as a mass of curls falling onto a well lit forehead. The shadow is warm. Look at the heads of Greuze and study the way in which your model's hair grows, this will add to the likeness and the painting will be more truthful. You should observe the part where the hair falls next to the skin so that you will be able to render it as realistically as possible; there should never be a hard line between the two; the hair and the skin should mingle slightly, in form and colour; this way the hair will not look like a wig, an inevitable error if one does not follow the method I have just described.

The hair should be drawn in a body and should remain as such for the most part; it is probably better to use a glaze, otherwise the colours may bleed into the shadow and the main flesh tones of the face. The highlights on the hair are only visible on the prominent parts of the head; curls reflect light in the centre and a few stray hairs break the uniformity. The edge of the hair should, like metal, have something of the background colour, for this helps to accentuate the turn of the head.

It is also essential to study the ear and to place it in the correct position, understanding that it is a link between the head and the neck; you should make the shape as beautiful as you can; study the art of antiquity or beautiful examples in nature. For example, you might notice how in general the German, and especially the Austrian race, have ears that are situated a little too high according to perfect proportion. Likewise, the way the neck sits upon the shoulders is different from that of other peoples: it is wide, thick and rises high behind the ear. These people also have very strong temple bones. So if you happen to be painting a German, you should conserve this characteristic trait, along with the prominent forehead and the usually flat, sunken cheeks. As far as possible, try and paint the complete ear and study its cartilage formation well, even if you are going to paint hair over it. The colour that determines its shape should be warm and transparent, apart from the earhole which should always be dark and opaque. Its flesh tones, even when highlighted, should in general be less luminous than the cheek, which is more prominent. The shadow thrown on the neck by the ear is very warm in daylight; the jaw should be drawn in subtle tints with delicate mid-tones in order to obtain the depth between jaw and neck. If the head belongs to a woman, the base of the jaw should have warmer tones than that of a man, whose beard absorbs the naturally warm flesh tones beneath. The shadow on the neck should also be very subtle and less ruddy than the face. It is essential to observe the proportion of the collarbones relative to the position of the head, as well as the way they reflect light; the chest area becomes a little deeper in colour towards the point where the collar bones meet; in general the articulations, such as the elbow, the kneecap, the heel and the knuckles are always darker than the rest of the body.

If you have to paint breasts, put the model in a position where they are well lit; the best
conditions for painting breasts occur when the light is direct and the colour should grow
gradually stronger towards the nipple; the mid-tones which curve around the breast should be as light and fresh as possible; the shadow between the breasts should be warm and transparent.

There are rules for the gradation of light, such as I have described for the head, for the rest of the body. If the figure is seated, the light focuses strongly upon the thighs and will gradually fade towards the heel.”


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