What Kind of Lighting Went Into Famous Works of Art?

The following post is from our new blogger Annie Josey, who is joining Pegasus Lighting on May 21, 2012. Annie is a recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduate who majored in English with a minor in creative writing. Annie wrote this post during the interview process and we loved it so much, and learned a little bit about art in the process, we could not wait to post it to the blog. We hope you like Annie’s first post as much as we do, and can’t wait for her to “enlighten” us even more in the coming months.

In paintings, the depiction of light can create tangible shape, intricate texture and vibrant color. Great painters like Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Manet crafted careers out of working with light, while having very few lighting options for inspiration. Here are a few examples of their work, and how each painter might go about achieving the same schemes with modern lighting:

Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait, 1629”

Rembrant Self Portrait 1629

This painting is a perfect example of Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro (the contrast between light and shadow). The lighting here is soft, creating a tranquil, romantic look. The shadows are diffused and gentle, used to define the face without being too severe.

If Rembrandt were alive today, he could easily recreate this setting with an incandescent or compact fluorescent light bulb placed high and to the left. He should opt for a lower wattage to achieve that same dim look, and stick with a light temperature of under 3,500K to maintain the warm atmosphere.

Caravaggio’s “Cavadenti”

Caravaggio Cavadenti

Caravaggio used a technique called Tenebrism here, a harsher version of chiaroscuro. The stark contrast between light and darkness accentuates the elaborate details of the subjects in the foreground.

Had Caravaggio had access to our own advanced lighting resources, he would have chosen a small, hard light source, placed far in front of the subjects. He’d select one with a warm temperature for the illusion of firelight, and require a higher wattage to achieve the same crisp-looking shadows.

Manet’s “Le Fifre”

Manet Le FifreThe employment of lighting in this Manet painting differs greatly from Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Instead of valuing shadow to illuminate dimension, Manet uses full frontal lighting to emphasize color – bright reds, whites and yellows.

Here in modern times, Manet could recreate this scene with LED lighting to accentuate the vivid hues. He would stick with a cool light source – between 4,000K and 6,000K – to make the colors seemingly glow.



Annie Josey

Annie was the E-Commerce Marketing Specialist at Pegasus Lighting from June 2012 to October 2013. She has a background in English literature, and loves using language to help illuminate the world. So covering lighting news and tips naturally fit her interests. In her personal time she enjoys painting, biking, and reading.