As I dig deeper into the craft of cinematography I feel the need to consume more references and inspiration than cinema itself can provide. To that end, I took a trip this week to the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square to see a little of how light has been used in painting and photography over the last few centuries.
The light in many of the portraits is strikingly similar, with the subjects positioned near an unseen window in such a way as to light their up-side, the side of their face closest to the artist or viewer. This is known as a broad key, and in modern cinematography you don’t see it very often; a short key (‘lighting the down-side’) is almost universally favoured. The only convincing explanation I can offer for this is changing fashions.
The paintings that caught my eye were the ones that try something a little different with their lighting. I found it an interesting exercise to work out where the natural light was coming from and how I would recreate it with modern equipment. Here are three of my favourites…
Frederick, Duke of York and Albany by Sir David Wilkie (1823)
Rather than using the daylight to illuminate his subject’s face, Wilkie seats the duke with his back to the window, which cross-lights his sword nicely. The paper in his hand acts as a bounce board, throwing light back onto his face and shirt buttons. It’s great fun doing this in cinematography – firing a hot source in through a window and then seeing it bounce unpredictably off the set and costumes. If I was recreating this painting, the source might be a 6K HMI through a diffusion frame.
Thomas Henry Huxley by John Collier (1883)
I love how the top-light in this painting throws Huxley’s eye sockets into shadow, making him resemble the skull he’s holding. I’m guessing Collier didn’t pitch the portrait that way though! I might recreate this using a lightly diffused Joker Bug rigged to the ceiling, or a Source 4 Leiko fired up into an overhead bounce board.
The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale Receiving the Wounded at Scutari by Jerry Barrett (1857)
The key light here is coming from the left – perhaps a 12K through a 12×12 full grid – but there’s a hotter shaft picking out Flo in the centre. For that I might use a 2.5K just out of frame, flagged to hit only her. At her feet there would have to be a silver reflector to kick that up-light onto the face of the kneeling woman. The characters on the right of frame are edged quite strongly by the light from the archway. (We know from looking at the shadows on the background buildings that it can’t be direct sunlight, so there must be a window or a very bright wall which that edge light is bouncing off.) I would use an 8×4 matte silver bounce board or maybe even a mirror board to recreate that.
That’s all for now, but look out for more art posts in the near future.