Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Light It, and Like It! (Part 3)

Another concern when installing art illumination is the angle created between the source of light, the art's surface, and the observer. For the most part, you don't want the angle such that the light will specularly reflect from the art's major surface directly to the viewer. A specular reflection is that glaring, shiny reflection you can get from a varnished oil painting, or glossy photograph, when it is illuminated from certain angles. This is like the reflection you get from sunlight glancing off the surface of water at a certain angle. Bright specular reflections like this will significanlty destroy the contrast of tonal gradations in a painting or photograph, resulting in washed-out colors and details.

Lighting Angle That Avoids Glare
Lighting Angle That Creates Glare

Alternatively, the avoidance of all specular reflections is not simply a hard and fast rule. It is possible that you may want to actually enhance and utilize some specular reflections, for instance, in highlighting the texture of interesting brushwork or palette knife impasto techniques. Here, specular reflections may be your friend instead of your enemy. The important thing is to make sure that the angle of illumination you use enhances the work rather than degrading it. Before simply guessing, you should always temporarily try the lighting in various angular relationships with the art before you permanently install it. When you find that "sweet spot" for the light that best shows the work, install it there.

Oil painting illuminated straight-on, 
little texture is evident, art appears flat
(SUNFLOWERS, © Nancy Bower, all rights reserved)
Oil painting illuminated with glancing light, 
brushwork texture is obvious and three dimensional
(SUNFLOWERS, © Nancy Bower, all rights reserved)

There is much more that could be said about the proper illumination of art, but this should be enough to whet your appetite and try it out for yourself. It is actually difficult to put "too much" light on an art object. Almost always (although there are exceptions) more light is better. Generally, you will find that the more light you put on the subject, the brighter and truer the colors appear, the easier fine details can be seen, and the greater the contrast range will be. About the only time that there can be too much light is when the light is either sunlight or fluorescent light– each of these should be absolutely avoided as they contain significant amounts of damaging ultraviolet light.

All of these effects having to do with more light being better are due to the idiosyncracies of the human vision system. More light is important for the appreciation of fine detail, since these features are mostly detected by the cone cells of human vision in the central high-resolution spot of the retina (the fovea). Since these cells are not very responsive to dim light, details can be lost when light brightness is low.

Also, the human perception of color is entirely dependent on these same cone cells, making it imperative that enough light is present to make color perception robust. Finally, although the dynamic contrast ratio of the human vision system is incredibly large (up to as much as a million to one), the static contrast ratio is fairly small (only about 100:1). This static contrast ratio has to do with how much of a tonal range can be perceived in a single illuminated view, as is the case of viewing a single work of art at a single time.  The greater the illumination, the more of the art's original tonal range can be appreciated.

Please, take the time, and make the modest investment required, to best illuminate the art that you so love. You appreciated it enough to spend a considerable amount of time finding it, and you spent a considerable amount of money to buy it. And the artist didn't spend their own emotional energy and creative capital so that you would hide it in some dim corner of your home or business.

Light it, and like it!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Don't Try Violating the Maier Principle (Part 2)

There is no good excuse for art to remain in the shadows, because excellent lighting is now both easy to afford and fairly simple to install. There are some absolutely wonderful high-end illumination systems out there, but you need not go that far to achieve a powerful result. There are many ways to go about it, but for my own studio/gallery presentation, and in my on-the-road art show booth, I use miniature quarz-halogen spot reflector-type bulbs (type GU10 in either 35 or 50 watt versions).

While these bulbs used to be fairly pricey, they are now inexpensive (only two to three dollars apiece) and easy to incorporate in a lighting setup. This is an excellent technology to use, as they are truly "broadband" devices and their continuous optical spectra will reveal all of the nuances of color gradation and subtlety in the artwork. Further, the built-in metallized glass spot reflector directs nearly all of the light onto the art itself, not wasting it in illuminating the room in general.

GU10 bulb, front
GU10 bulb, rear

Although CF (compact fluorescent) technology is a wonderful way of saving conserving electrical power, it is a very poor way (at least with the current devices available) of illuminating fine art. The problem is that the optical spectra of the light produced is not continuous, but broken into discontinuous spectral "bands" of light. This can then cause what is called "metamerism" when a work is viewed under it. Metamerism is when the colors of a material (the various pigments in a painting, for instance) appear a different color than expected under a different light source. If you want your art to appear as the artist intended, a broadband light source is essential. CFs are also a fairly "extended source," rather than a small "point source." This makes it such that the CF's light output cannot be effectively redirected to light only the art (like a spot light).

Current LED light sources, as expensive as they are, also have problems with narrow, discontinuous bands. Until this technology is improved in this area, LED lights should be avoided, too.

Miniature incandescent sources (like the  GU10 bulbs I mentioned previously) can be used in a vast array of lamp types and configurations. Your local home improvement center is generally a great place to find these fixtures. They are available in multiple-lamp track configurations, single ceiling mount fixtures, or even in table-top lamps. The main thing is to make sure that you have enough light on the subject. If it turns out that you install lighting and then think you might not have enough, you can always add more fixtures. Most of these fixtures are fairly simple to install by most home owners.

Various GU10 Spot Lighting Fixtures in Track
The only caveat in mounting these lamps is that you don't place them so close to the art that they significantly heat it up. To find out if you have placed your lighting too close to the art, place the back of your hand immediately in front of the illuminated art at its closest point to the lighting. You should NOT be able to perceive any heating of the back of your hand, due to the lamp. If you have the slightest sensation of heating of your hand, either move the art slightly away from the lighting, or move the lighting farther from the art. Generally, a single 50 watt  GU10 type halogen bulb should be no closer than about two feet from the closest point of the art.

Your art is "a terrible thing to waste." Give it the light that it's due. As an optical engineer who I worked with for many years was fond of saying: "You can't violate the 'Maier Principle,' which, in short, states– 'if you ain't got enough photons, you ain't gonna see it!'

Friday, February 17, 2012

Revealing the Power of Art With Light (part 1)

Flipping the switch up into the "ON" position, I then stood back a couple of paces and looked upon the art on the wall with renewed appreciation. The colors were now vibrant- almost dazzling. The range of contrast, from the deepest shadows to the bright white clouds was amazing. Subtle nuances as well as the strong statements of the underlying composition were now fully evident and no longer in question. Yes, the light switch is certainly an important component of the proper presentation of a work of art.

Several years ago, I had been invited to show in a unique venue that I had not been to before. The clientele that came to the show was fairly knowledgeable about art, and I was looking forward to not only showing my work there, but probably making some important sales as well. The hall in which I was displaying seemed reasonably well lit, the other artists' booths looked pretty good, and my own presentation of my work was inviting. People seemed to genuinely like my work, but in the end, I made absolutely no sales.

In talking with a friend later (he is a photographer and his wife is a painter) I mentioned that I thought I could probably have made some good sales if only my presentation had been stronger- perhaps with some good lighting. He made me promise then and there that I would put together a good lighting setup before my next show. Of course I found myself scrambling the last three days before that show arrived, to put into effect my new lighting system– I wasn't about to be confronted by my friend when he showed up at the show and asked: "So where's your new lighting system you promised to build?"

When I finally got the system designed, engineered, components purchased, and installed, I lit the lights in my booth (temporarily set up in my front yard) and then began to hang photographs. From the very first piece of art hung, I was asking myself: "Why, in the world, didn't I do this earlier?" Clearly, the art would now be able to speak for itself, and probably sell itself.

Photograph on wall, properly lit with good broadband spot-lighting
I believe that many folks (probably the vast majority) who greatly appreciate and value art works have little appreciation for the value of proper lighting. Someone may spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on remarkable pieces, only to relegate them to some dark wall in their home where the true value of the work can never come to light. On the one hand, it is, indeed, important to make sure that art is placed well away from where it might encounter the harsh UV light that is a component of natural sunlight. Ultraviolet is a certain destroyer of fine artwork, and can reduce its lifetime from generations to mere years. But on the other hand, simply leaving it alone in the dark is kind of like leaving a bottle of fine, exquisite wine to gather dust in the cellar– wine is MEANT TO BE DRUNK, not just stored– and fine art is MEANT TO BE APPRECIATED, not just protected!

Photograph on wall, illuminated with only existing room lighting
When purchasing fine art, one should invest at least a portion of their art budget in decent lighting. It is simply insane to spend $5000 on a wonderful painting and then light it with a 75 cent, 60 watt standard bulb in a table lamp over in the corner– or even worse, a two-dollar compact fluorescent in the same fixture. This would be kind of like having the President of the United States (substitute your important dignitary of choice) visit you for dinner, then feeding him or her a baloney sandwich, and finally having them wash it down with a glass of Koolaid®.

There are many fine (and relatively inexpensive) options available for lighting artwork which I will explore in a follow-on post. 

Don't let your art languish– let it be luminous! 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Nature of Light and Colour

Several years ago, a colleague pointed me to a powerful and life impacting resource. I had been working along side Dr. Hector Acosta, a "human factors" professional, on a research project in the area of vision as it related to human performance. Human factors strives to understand and optimize things like ergonomics, performance, and acceptability.

I have always genuinely enjoyed my conversations with Dr. Acosta, and have learned a tremendous amount from him in our professional relationship. Dr. Acosta's doctoral dissertation was centered on another quite interesting research project that I grilled him about mercilessly (and he was always more than happy to oblige!).

His dissertation investigated the interactive physiological and psychological mechanisms that might be responsible for the long-known optical illusion that has been commonly referred to as "the moon illusion." Although an extremely intriguing topic in itself, I won't be going into the moon illusion here (though I might be persuaded to take that up in a future post).

During one of our conversations Hector mentioned a book he had in his library that might be able to answer one of my questions that had come up in our conversation. He turned around and exited our conversation, leaving me hanging there temporarily, and in a few moments returned from his office, holding a book out in his hand. He said: "Here it is! You really ought to read won't regret it!"

I quickly thumbed through the book, noting its frequent and rather archaic/quaint hand drawn illustrations. I couldn't help but comment to him: "Cool! Looks like this thing was written in the '40s or '50s!" He responded that I was quite correct in my assumption, and that the author was a Belgian fellow. I thanked him, took the book home and devoured its 360 or so pages in just a few evenings.

I found the book to be an incredible exposition of very diverse visible atmospheric phenomena, and of profound interest to me as an optical engineer as well as a photographer of nature. The book was written by the Belgian astronomer (both an asteroid and a crater on the moon were named for him), biologist, and keen observer of nature, Marcel Minnaert, in 1954. The volume contains detailed (and yet easily accessible by the laymen) descriptions and explanations of common atmospheric phenomena such as the blueness of the sky, the redness of sunsets, and the colors and shape of rainbows. The explanations are exhaustive (at least when the understanding is completely known by science), yet engaging and readable.

For Minnaert, these common sights in the sky are a mere preamble and appetizer for the main courses. He goes on to describe a whole spectrum of delights to be seen in the earth's sky, and on its surface as well.  He delves into fascinating detail when recounting the common (but rarely appreciated) sight of the "earth's shadow," which can actually be easily seen almost every clear evening immediately after sunset. Minnaert explores hundreds of such visible effects– from the extremely common and ubiquitous, to the fairly unusual, to the extremely rare once-in-a-lifetime sight.

When I went online to buy my own copy several years ago (the early days of Amazon and eBay), I was just about to order a copy I had come across, only to abandon the effort when I reread the description and found that it was the original Dutch language version! I finally located a paperback copy of the English translation (completed in 1954) and purchased it. The more recently reprinted book I found was the easily available "The Nature of Light and Colour In the Open Air," for which I paid about $10. An even more recent reprint, "Light and Color Outdoors," contains color photographs rather than the original drawings, but costs on the order of $100 new.

The book can give the reader a deeper appreciation of and desire to look for many very interesting phenomena that are fairly easy to experience but usually missed by the average person. I have used this book to change the way I look at the world. Previously, when I saw something amazing in the sky or on the earth, I was prompted to observe it keenly and make its memory the fodder of my future creative efforts– strictly a reactive process. Now, I more often than not walk through my day anticipating that I will see something interesting (even specific phenomena), and when I do, I am able to better understand what I am looking at, and maybe even point out the phenomenon to someone else in the vicinity.

Get a hold of this book and let it widen your horizons. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

E. O. Goldbeck– The Final Frontier (Part 4)

E. O. Goldbeck led a remarkable life in so many different ways. He left a legacy of art, invention, pioneering, entrepreneurship, service, and family. On top of these numerous successes he lived a good long life of nearly a century. He almost had to have lived this long (94 years) in order to pack in so much.

I mentioned previously that I had obtained a signed and numbered copy of "The Panoramic Photography of Eugene O. Goldbeck." The fact that Goldbeck had signed this book just shortly before he died caused me to investigate the circumstances of his death. Online I was able to find the obituary that had appeared locally. As is customary, the obit recorded the details of his funeral and ultimate burial.

I was intrigued that his burial plot was located in Mission Burial Park South– near the San Antonio River and not more than a mile or so from the place I was mainly working at that time. I made plans to take an hour or so to pay a visit to Mission Park South, and attempt to locate his gravesite.

Driving in the cemetary's entrance, I stopped at the office and eventually found the folks who could help me out. I spoke with one of the ladys in the office and told her whose grave I wanted to locate. She entered the name into her computer and instantly had the plot's ID and location. She then circled a spot on a small xeroxed map of the pertinent section of the cemetary and handed it to me. After she gave me simple directions for driving to the section, I thanked her for her help and left the office. I could hardly believe how simple and quick this had been.

After driving for some distance (Mission Park South is quite extensive) I located the section and the approximate location of the Goldbeck family plot. I parked my car, gathered my photo equipment, and then made my search on foot for the gravesite. About fifty feet or so from the road, I saw before me a dark gray granite, upright simple memorial with the Goldbeck family name engraved prominently on it. I had found Goldbeck's "resting place."

Eugene and Marcella Goldbeck's burial plot, © Bill Brockmeier, 2010, all rights reserved by the artist

Next to the family marker was a flat granite rectangular stone, level with the ground, and engraved—

"Our Dear Dad
Eugene Omar Goldbeck
Nov 4, 1892—October 26, 1986."

Next to Gene's grave was that of his longtime wife, Marcella (interestingly, my own wife's middle name). Marcella lived an even longer life than Gene– attaining the age of 97 years. In the adjacent row were markers for some of their children who had preceded them in exiting this existence.

So– here lies the great, inventive master of panoramic photography himself. I thought out loud– "What could be more fitting than to compose a panoramic photograph of his gravesite?" I believe that Gene himself would have concurred heartily.

I assembled my gear and composed several different panoramic shots over the next hour or so. As I was setting up each one, I wondered how Gene might have approached such a challenge. Perhaps he would build a 200 foot tall tower and photograph the entire west section of the cemetary, including 2500 individual graves visible in a single photograph.

I finished my photographic exploration of the Goldbeck family plot and put away my equipment. Before I headed back to my vehicle, I thanked God for this man who so enjoyed stretching the limits of the photographic arts. What an example for myself.
Homage To "A Crazy Man," © Bill Brockmeier, 2010, all rights reserved by the artist
A final note– you'll notice my title to the image just above: "Homage To 'A Crazy Man.'"  This may seem a bit cryptic to you, but is a reference to Goldbeck's summary of himself: "You'd have to be a crazy man to do what I do." And superimposed on Gene's grave is my own shadow as I composed the shot, emulating a fairly famous photograph of him (below) waving his arms wildly as he enthusiastically directed a composition.

E. O. Goldbeck Directs a Shot
(authorship unknown)