Lighting in the Artist’s Studio: Fine Art Reproduction as Photography

April 22, 2013

Atelierlighting

Let’s work from a basic premise: a painting, and even a drawing, is not a 2-dimensional subject.  It has depth and texture.

If you accept that premise, you can only conclude that to reproduce it well, you have to light it and photograph it like any other 3-dimensional subject.  Most Fine Art reproduction is using traditional copy-board lighting technique, which places light sources on either side of the work, at equal distance, at 45º.  This introduces some familiar effects, such as specular glare and highlights, as well as fairly uneven lighting.  Learning correct methods for copy lighting is the process of learning how to correct these effects.  Techniques involve precise aiming and flare of the lights, polarizing the lights as well as the camera lens and other practices. As the original work gets larger, the technical issues multiply.

Here’s a standard copystand:

picture-11

For absolutely flat, featureless artwork, this method is practical.  For any subject with texture of any sort, it produces a lighting effect completely different from what we see when we view the work. Virtually no artwork on public display, or in the artist’s studio  is viewed with this type of lighting.

Does it really make a difference in how a painting is reproduced, how it appears to the viewer, and it’s fidelity to the original work?  Yes.  Profoundly.

Here’s a very simple demonstration.  This is a detail of the painting above, photographed with the lighting that the artist uses in his studio:

Atelierlighting_detail2

(Please click on any of the posted images for full-sized versions.)

The light is as the artist prefers it.  It is predominately from above, but with some soft “North Light” fill from the side, as well as behind the camera. The texture of the canvas is evident, yet simple and clean, and readable.  More importantly, the brush stroke is also readable, and is rendered in exactly the same way as the artist saw, and intended it.  It also is very similar to the environments in which the work is ultimately to be displayed- in a gallery, museum, or residence.

This detail is taken from a photograph of the same painting with conventional “copy-board” lighting:

copylighting_detail2

The texture of the canvas is now confused – we don’t know how to read it.  There are specular highlights all through this highly-varnished piece, and again, more importantly, the stroke is now rendered in a completely different way than what the artist saw in his studio.

What also becomes painfully clear is that the tone and color of the copy-board photograph suffers as well.  Color hue and saturation is intimately related to the quality and wavelength of the viewing light.  Standard copy-board lighting changes how we see not only texture, but the subtle relationships of the very essence of the work: the palette.

The tradition of photographing artwork using copy-board techniques is firmly rooted in film-based photography.  Many of the issues we faced when shooting with film are simply no longer issues when using digital tools.  We can, for the first time, see, and reproduce the work as the artist intended the work to be seen.

We can be faithful to the vision of the artist.

Visit The Atelier Print to learn more.

To read more on the techniques and practices of Fine Art reproduction, see “On Fine Art Reproduction… (or: You’re Doing It Wrong)

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