THE ARTIST’S MAGAZINE
Every painter has heard about north light, the much-touted ideal in studio lighting. Why do artists like north light? It’s not the color, which is quite blue – and too much blue can be a drawback. It’s the fact that, on a clear day, north light is consistent; light that’s bright one moment and dim the next can make it hard to judge color and value. North light is also soft, which for a portrait painter means that his model will be lit with a more flattering light.
For Nashville portrait painter Michael Shane Neal, who has painted such notables as Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, all the qualities are important. Neal, who worked on the lighting for his dream studio in 2004, says, “I’ve always believed that north light is a very critical light to paint by. If your work pleases you in the studio, it will look reasonably good in other lighting conditions.”
In keeping with this philosophy, Neal made sure his 22×28-foot studio would have an adequate amount of north light. First he put in a bank of four windows, totaling 10 feet wide by 9 feet high. “I knew from speaking with many artists,” he says, “that I wanted the windows to start at about chest level.” This is because, even with north light, indirect lighting is best. “You’re trying to force the light upward in the room in order to work mostly in the ambient light, which helps minimize glare. Also you want to minimize reflections from the floor surface or the bounce of the light upward from the floor.” Neal likes to work standing, so having the windows start at chest level is ideal.
But can you have too much north light? As Neal’s teacher, the noted portrait artist Everett Raymond Kinstler, told him it’s better to have too much north light than not enough. “You can always block off what you don’t want,” says Neal. “Adding shades to your north window or blinds to a ‘fill’ window is a nice way of having some control.” Because his north windows can shed a great deal of light on the model, they also can cast a significant shadow on the model’s far side. Neal put a small window on the opposite wall about eight feet off the floor to provide a fill light for times when the shadow becomes too dark.