Posted on 21 Comments

How I paint in the dark

Blog about artificial lighting for artists

Hedgehogs and bears have the right idea about winter.

Bear asleep
Is this the best way to spend winter?

They hibernate and miss the dark winter months. I am finding this winter quite a struggle. In the last fortnight most days have been characterised by gloomy skies and poor light quality. In previous years I have struggled to get much painting done. I have spent hours tapping away on the computer looking up at the black sky outside my window, waiting for the sun to rise so I can start painting, and then often abandoning work at 2pm when the light goes. The best light to paint by is undoubtedly daylight, and my attic studio is blessed with a lovely northern light, but I needed to extend my painting time, to keep working.

A couple of years ago I invested in a “Professional” artists’ light. It was pretty pricey at £60 ($75US) but I hoped it would be worth it. I think it helped me paint on for about half an hour after the light had faded but not much more.

Daylight Professional Artists Lamp (old version)
Daylight Professional Artists Lamp (old version)

So I decided to add to it with a photographer’s’ daylight lamp. These have screw fittings so I had to buy a converter so that it would fit the clip fitting that I also bought. The whole set up did not cost much more than £12 ($15) so just on price it was likely to beat the expensive artist’s light. The bulb arrived, but when I opened it up I was so surprised it’s strange appearance (it was easily twice the size of the regular light bulb) that I laughed so hard that I dropped it, and it and smashed! Drat (not my actual words). I then had to order another one and wait all over again for a new one to be delivered.

Photography Daylight White E27 Lighting Lamp Bulbs 135W 5500k
Don’t Laugh! Photography Daylight White E27 Lighting Lamp Bulbs

It was worth waiting for. It was pretty good. It was cheap too. So I got a second one to place either side of me. This enabled me to paint on for an hour and half after the light had gone. This year, I have gone for a “full-Hollywood-lighting” with three of these beauties blazing away. The artist’s light has been relegated to acting as handy arm to clip the photographers’ lights to! I don’t even bother to switch it on, anymore, unless it’s really dark.

How artists see to paint in the dark
The two photographers lights clipped on the bendy arm of the artist’s lamp.

Now I think I can paint any time of the day or night (almost). It’s best for augmenting natural light and extending painting times. In yesterday’s gloom I was still struggling to see pale yellows and light greens. I am very tempted to see what a fourth one will do for me.

Artificial light in an artists studio
Lights on in my attic studio
Oil paintings of Donegal, Ireland
Recent paintings of Donegal painted (partially) under artificial light

Interestingly, despite all this artificial light I find I still need my SAD lamp to keep me relatively cheerful and regulate my sleep patterns. I have found that if I don’t get a good shot of SAD light around 7pm I awake at 4am bright-eyed and decidedly grumpy. That extra burst of light helps tell my brain that I should not wake up until 6.30, at least. That’s the best I can do most days. I long to sleep in til 9am but for some reason I just can’t.

What do other artists do to keep working in the winter months? Or you sensibly, wrap up warm and go to sleep for four months like hedgehogs and bears?

Sleeping hedgehog
That looks so cosy!

Here’s another artist’s solution to the dark days of winter.

To see my landscape painting click here 

21 thoughts on “How I paint in the dark

  1. Your studio looks like heaven to me. I’m not a painter but all that creativity in one room… Interesting you mention the lack of light at this time of year and your difficulty getting a good night’s sleep, I’ve been a regular 4am riser recently (not by choice or design) but I hadn’t made the connection with not having got enough light in the day. Ceri

    1. Apparently waking early is connected to not enough bright light in the evening – I have a blast of the SAD light around 7pm so that helps me sleep to at least 6.30. I was waking much earlier until I remembered I have to reset my body clock. The dark winters do have their advantages – the night is really dark so at least I sleep well when I sleep. Apparently sleeping is a problem for people who live above the arctic circle. (as many of 50% of the population suffer from insomnia in the winter).

  2. In the winter I work mostly on my books.In those it does not matter much if a colour is seen by daylight or lamplight. And, because a page is often much smaller than a canvas, on them I often work with Posca acrylic paintpens so then the green is always the same green etc.

    1. That’s handy, Cecile. I am meant to be working on a book and hand drawing some maps but I never seem to get around to it. I think the dark puts me off. When it’s day light I just want to paint.

  3. I feel the need to hibernate unless it is a bright and sunny day. I think we should all have low expectations of ourselves in December and January.

    1. I certainly reduce my activity in winter. In the light summers I paint until past 9pm but in the winter I stop at tea-time and then slump in front of the TV!

  4. After going through a long phase where I would only paint when the daylight was good enough, I discovered and read this fairly lengthy article by Will Kemp – which rather made my head spin! – based on the content of that, I invested in one of those big twisty bulbs (that looks a lot like yours, Emma!) and I now use that, combined with a large “ottlight” adjustable angled artists lamp, it’s rather cooler than regular daylight, I think, but, what the hey if it makes me paint a little on the warm side! ….I do think it makes my mood better, too 🙂 Thanks, Emma, I found this blog post really interesting and I plan to watch that video when I have time 😉

    1. Thank you for the link. I recognise it. This is where I got the idea for the twisty light bulbs in the first place. His article is so much better than mine! Maybe the artists light balances out the photographers’ light. I had everything on yesterday afternoon and I think the artists’ light improved things.

      1. Will Kemp – he’s so awesome, isn’t he?!! 😉

  5. I guess I’m the far outlier on the winter lighting bell curve. Or any time of year, for that matter. I paint in my basement. It’s a walk-out basement so it does have a lot of light from the four windows and the glass sliding doors. But…my work space is nowhere near those light sources. I have a line of halogen track lights over my work area, plus two clamp lamps that I can focus where needed. I used to have a nice north light in a previous residence, but oddly enough I didn’t love it enough to really miss it when I relocated. All I can say is I guess I’m either visually impaired or just weird!

    1. Your halogen track lights (and tow clamp lamps) must be good. If I traded north light for extra space, I might not miss it that much either. I’m pretty cramped in my attic!

  6. As a non artist I find this very interesting. When I visit England in the winter i am reminded of how much farther north it is relative to Toronto. It always seems to get dark much earlier and conversly in spring it is light much longer. I am interested in the use fo the SAD light around 7pm. I find I wake up too early on many nights. Nlot at 4 but say 5:30. i sometimes can go back to sleep but not always. I had never thought of associating it withe daylight hours. Hmm…..I shall have to think about this.

    1. Yes, Anne, that’s the problem a lot of people have. I don’t think that daylight saving helps either. I carried on waking at the “old” time of 5.30 for a couple of weeks until I remembered that I need to reset my block clock with SAD lamp in the evening. It usually works. It also cheers me up as lack of light sees me slowly sliding into being Mrs Gloomy. I didn’t realise that the UK is further north than Toronto. I have just looked at a map and i am shocked at that information!

      1. Yes it is quite a difference in latitude. When we get down to FL it is different again with more equal time of daylight and dark.

  7. I never think of England being north of Toronto, either! That is a shock and no wonder light is such an issue for you. We do get dark and gloomy here in Illinois, too and light is a challenge in my studio. Right now I have track lighting with daylight balanced bulbs, but they aren’t that strong so by 3 I’m about done. Sometimes I drag my easel to a south facing window in another room!

  8. Some days in a gloomy winter the light is gone by 1pm and I have to put the light on but usually its around 2 or 3pm. Sometimes I wish I had those massive lights they use for making Hollywood films!!

  9. Thanks Emma great tips for this time of year.. I do have a white light artist desk lamp currently but could stand to have more lighting.

    1. Some days I feel like I could do with about 10 lamps, one would never be enough!!

  10. Your recent paintings are smashing! <3 Must be the light is good!

    1. I wish the lighting could take all the credit but I think it because Donegal is so darn beautiful, Manja!

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