Monday, August 25, 2008


Godried Schalcken (1643-1706) earned a reputation for rendering candlelight and lamplight. In his paintings, the brightness diminishes quickly as forms recede from the flame. At twice the distance, the light is only one-fourth as bright.

Schalcken, like Georges De La Tour and other candlelight painters, used the trick of hiding the light behind the hand to show the subsurface scattering through the flesh of the hand.

Adolf von Menzel’s painting Flute Concert shows candles placed near the music of each of the players. The frail, flickering light gives way to soft gloomy passages in the outer boundaries of the scene.

The chandelier has about 20 candles. It is reflected in a mirror on the far wall. To the side of the reflection are sconces with about four more candles each. Because of the smoke from all those candles, there’s an atmospheric quality to the distant part of the room, with no deep darks in the vicinity of the light sources.

In Woman with a Burning Candle, Alfonse Mucha achieves a strong feeling of glowing illumination without using Schalcken’s deep darks at all. He keeps most of his values in the mid range or lighter, and he lightens and warms the background colors as they approach the flame. This color corona effect simulates the way the aqueous humor in our eye scatters the light and makes a halo around any point source. Note that the figure is not really lit by the candle, but rather by a cool overhead light.

The film Barry Lyndon, directed by Stanley Kubrick, contains one of the few scenes in film history shot entirely by real candlelight, not faked with artificial light. The extremely dim conditions required special lenses, film stock, and reflectors. The cinematographer John Alcott recalls:

“the set was lit entirely by the candles, but I had metal reflectors made to mount above the two chandeliers, the main purpose being to keep the heat of the candles from damaging the ceiling. However, it also acted as a light reflector to provide an overall illumination of toplight.
More on Alcott's recollections about Barry Lyndon, link.
Previous Gurney Journey post on subsurface scattering and color corona.


Unknown said...

Beautiful work! But now I look at my own art and find I can't hold a candle to this guy!

Unknown said...

I forgot to mention, Jim, that you did a good job at waxing eloquent about this technique.