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Home » Challenge #6 Capturing Light Fluctuations

Challenge #6 Capturing Light Fluctuations

Aren’t light fluctuations wonderful?

Seeing it glisten on the water, transforming itself as the day goes by, intensifying in the mountains, piercing the fog, filtering through the leaves, what an enchantment! And even, during lunch, watch the glasses throwing their light on the tablecloth, their abstract patterns on the walls: pure pleasure.

How to capture these moments?

This is the subject of our present challenge, which is again approached using the GORC method: Get inspired – Observe – Copy – Create.

Result of color challenge #6 (CC-BY-SA V. Lacroix)

Getting inspired

Light has always fascinated artists. Capturing it and reproducing its essence is a challenge that has stood the test of time.

Since the 20th century, sculptors have even considered it as a basic material for their installations. Thus, rather than capturing its variations, they create them.

Filmmakers also know how to arouse feelings in the viewer by simple light modulations. And for their shows, musicians don’t hesitate to deploy great means in the play of light and artificial fogs to amaze us.

But we will consider these paths in a future challenge; today, before being sculptors of light, we will be the observers and chroniclers.

Also, far from the grandiose effects, sometimes with an economy of means, artists translate with simplicity the magic of these fleeting moments.

Painting of the 15th century

We can contemplate Van Eyck’s paintings for hours without tiring, so much so that the play of light on clothes or jewellery, or in the mirrors, demands our attention. In the portrait of the Arnofini, the concave mirror between the two spouses has always intrigued me.

Van Eyck, left: Portrait of the Arnolfini (1434); right: detail of the concave mirror.

A magnificent Van Eyck exhibition took place at the MSK museum in Ghent. If you have missed it, you may still take a virtual tour or discover some of the paintings here in their smallest details, better than if you were there!

17th century painting

The display of victuals is not exciting for me. But when I look at these 17th century Dutch still lives I cannot help but admire them.

Look at this glass: perceive its relief, its transparency, its shadow disappearing on the tablecloth, surrounding a burst of light. And these metallic plates, whose reflections of bread and cheese enhance the dishes they present. The plate is more than just an eye-catcher: placed on the edge of the table and the painting, it would only take a gesture for the spectator to carry it away.

Floris Van Dyck, Still life with fruit, nuts and cheese (1613)

The velvet of the black grapes, the bluish stains of the red grapes, the nuances of the white grapes more or less exposed to the ambient light, everything fascinates me. Right down to the slightly shiny patterns of the tablecloth and the folds of the doily, here in hollow, there in relief. What a goldsmith’s work!


The study of the fluctuations of light is at the heart of the artistic approach of the Impressionists, who wanted to record fleeting impressions.

Monet is unquestionably a magician of light. I have already referred to one of his paintings to illustrate the principle of tonic.

Elsewhere, through three “Rouen Cathedrals”, I have illustrated the different shades that light takes on according to the time of day. The painting below, although less well known, shows the modernity of his work; the Saint-Lazare station: what better place to study the diffusion of light in the smoke of steam locomotives? Monet will paint a series on this subject.

Claude Monet, light effects in the smoke of trains in “The trench of the Batignoles”.

In “The Mill of the Galette”, Renoir takes us into the Parisian afternoons brightened up by the play of shadows and summer light.

Auguste Renoir, shadows are playing on the crowd in “The Mill of the Galette” (1876)


Photo-realist artists loudly proclaim their use of photography – a tool that many artists secretly used without admitting it. As if this diminished the merit of their art.

David Hockney in “Secret Knowledge” argues that even before the invention of photography artists were already making drawings with the light chamber (a device that allows an image of the scene to be optically produced above the drawing paper). He makes an inventory of the optical processes that helped them, with supporting evidence. The still lives of the seventeenth century, whose qualities I praise above, may also have benefited from this technology. Even Van Eyck, mentioned above, would have used it.

But they are not content to simply copy what these processes bring to them: they decompose, recompose, modify here, merge there.

In the painting “Holland Hotel” by Richard Estes, the size of the work – almost one metre by two – contributes to plunge us into the luminous atmosphere of New York.

Richard Estes, “Holland Hotel” (reproduction Louis K. Meisel )

One thing all these artists have in common: an irresistible desire to show us transparency, reflections that may or may not be distorted, shadows, low or brutal lights, surfaces that we want to touch or caress. In two words: to grasp the fluctuations of light.

Contemporary painting

David Hockney is one of my favorite painters. I appreciate his ability to follow an idea, a technique, to explore its creative potential, as he did in his “Paper pools”. What I appreciate above all is how bold he is in his color choices.

David Hockney, left: “Steps with Shadow F “(Paper Pool 2), (1978); right: “Gregory in the Pool E”(Paper Pool 4), 1978

Swimming pools, or water in general, offer a golden subject for the lover of changing lights. It is also a vein of inspiration for the painter Pedro Covo.

© Pedro Covo, Three paintings of the Swimmers series (“Swimmer 10”, “Swimmer 4”, “Swimmer 1”).

Contemporary engraving

The light of Anne Dykmans‘ engravings penetrates our soul. Anne makes us dream or meditate: her empty chairs are waiting for us.

Anne Dykmans, “Interior II “(mezzotint and aquatint) —courtesy of the artist.
Anne Dykmans, “Interior II “(mezzotint and aquatint) — courtesy of the artist.
Anne Dykmans, “Buddies Blues”, aquatint — courtesy of the artist.

In the aquatint above, we contemplate the shimmering light on the surface of the lake, as if we were sharing its boat.

Together we have just traveled a few centuries during which artists have celebrated the fluctuations of light in their own way. Let us now turn to the next step in our process: by analyzing some of the details, let us see how some of them proceed.


The realistic approach

Below are some details of Floris Van Dyck’s still life with fruit, nuts and cheese.

Detail: you can perceive the relief of the glass, its transparency, its content; you can see its shadow and the light projections it generates. To the right are some elements showing how the properties of color create transparency and volume.

Sometimes a simple line in an area of the same color and the whole relief appears: in front of the cheese the line representing the opening of the glass is dark, while just in front of the spectator it is light. The cheese is slightly darker when it appears behind one layer of glass, and greener behind two layers.

The volume of the glass is reflected in a beautiful dark gradation in front of the viewer, and a lighter gradation on both sides of the glass edge. This gradient is referred as “Dégradé” in the picture above.

In the foot of the glass, some highlights (noted “Rehaut”) for new relief indications.

Two other details; left: three types of grapes and their chromatic treatment for a precise and balanced rendering; right: the metal plate highlights the bread, whose reflection can be seen. The shadow of the plate and the changing light on the tablecloth underlines its position at the edge of the table.

The spherical aspect of the grapes above is again rendered by highlights and gradations, but the highlights are less contrasting and more diffuse than in the glass. Work on saturation, clarity and light distribution provides this velvety smoothness to the black grapes.

A reflection is always darker than the original. To create a shadow, painting a gradient (i.e. a smooth variation in lightness) is the preferred technique. As for the fold, it is signified by an abrupt change in lightness, with, on the left, a very slight increase in lightness. At the front, the shadow of the plate breaks at the edge of the change in brightness, informing the spectator of the relief of the fold.

After Van Dyck, don’t hesitate to take a walk through Van Eyck’s paintings, available here in very high resolution, to discover how he manages to make us perceive precious stones, gold crowns, shimmering velvets, where in the end, there are only spots of color.

The synthetic approach

David Hockney’s paper pools have nothing to do with pool photos, yet they seem more real to me. What a paradox! In fact, they are closer to the idea of a pool.

Hockney appropriated a constraining technique (i.e. merging paper making and the act of painting in a single gesture) and exploited these limitations for expressive purposes. Although his starting point is photography, he has removed all its complexity while adding his own touch.

Note the bright red line in contrast to the upper black band: this is the complementary color to the turquoise of the pool water. It was not present in the photos. This pair of color complements is highlighted by the coloRotate application already presented in a previous challenge. It also gives a punchy effect as described here in the context of other paintings.

The complementary red and turquoise colors of David Hockney’s paper pool highlighted in the coloRotate application.


I chose to copy on ipad the poster that David Hockney made for the 1972 Olympic Games. Although the tool seemed ideal at first, I underestimated the time to do it. Don’t think that the task is much simpler on such a device. First, I hesitated about the application to use, then about the working method and finally about the tools in the application. The work was long but instructive.

Poster of the 1972 Olympic Games directed by David Hockney, and my own re-interpretation.

The representation of moving light through luminous snakes attracted me at first sight. This interpretation is interesting and original. It is a synthesis of light reflections. Nobody (I think) had done this before David Hockney.

While making this copy, I noticed that very few shades of color were present: one turquoise, one grey, a few darker blues and one or two flesh pinks.

Here, I give you some of the steps in the process and how I have taken advantage of digital technology for specific renderings that could provide future leads. Finally, in my copy, I preferred not to color the body. Now that I look back at the result, I would probably draw a white (or grey) line around the face.

Three stages of the copy of David Hockney’s poster for the 1972 Olympic Games. (V. Lacroix)


In painting

Below, two acrylic works on imagined seashores.

Vinciane Lacroix, left: Seaside in the moonlight; right:Seaside with pink line ( CC-BY-SA 2.5)

In photography

I love to photograph water. The life photography option of the iphone allows you to make beautiful animations like the one below; a photo stand is not even essential.

Vinciane Lacroix, Light effect in a fountain (CC-BY-SA 2.5)

Go ahead

How are you going to capture the changing play of light?

If not through painting or photography, invite light into your garden, into your flat. Hang small mirrors on the trees and watch the cats play with the dancing reflections. Sit by the water’s edge and watch the light caress the trees.

Find glass chandeliers, metal pedestals, deforming mirrors for your interior.

In your clothing, ladies, if you are afraid of “bling-bling”, content yourself with discreet jewellery or pretty stones that the light can awaken. Otherwise, dare to use sequins or even gold in all its shades. Choose fabrics whose patterns change according to the direction of the light. Without realizing it, your interlocutor will be charmed.

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