Thursday, October 27, 2016


An art critic once remarked that when Rembrandt was young and cocky, his portrait subjects were dramatically lit from the outside, but as he got older and wiser, his subjects became lit from within.

Rembrandt self-portraits at age 23...  and at age 53
Very few things in the world actually emit their own light-- angels, fireflies, suns-- the rest of us are opaque objects, only visible because we reflect the light from those rare sources.

That hasn't stopped artists from trying to imbue opaque surfaces (such as paper or canvas) with radiance, to suggest that their subject glows from within.  In the middle ages, texts were called "illuminated" when artists used gold or silver to make them glow.  Today we can illuminate images electronically using light-emitting diodes or simply turning up the brightness on our computer monitor. This makes colors glow in a way that Rembrandt never dreamed.

Some commercial illustrators of the 20th century turned that "lit from within" feeling into a personal brand.  Haddon Sundblom was famous for creating a Santa Claus that radiated sunshine.

Another talented illustrator, less well known than Sundblom, was Pete Hawley.  He painted cute babies on greeting cards and little plastic plaques that grandmothers hung on their kitchen walls in the 1950s.

His assignments were largely simple minded, yet he did beautiful work.

Note how his colors and technique combine to give his subjects an incandescence:

Highlights from above on their hair and reflected light on their cheeks from below were ethereal pinks and turquoises.

As an aside, I love Hawley's snappy brushwork which adds contrast and vigor to the brim of her straw hat, or to the shape of his mechanic's cap.

Sundblom and Hawley didn't have the luxury of lighting their subjects electronically. Today anyone can flip a switch and give a face more lumens than Rembrandt ever did.

But a picture that literally glows is not the same as a picture that glows metaphorically.  Sundblom and Hawley used their considerable arts and artifices to simulate a feeling of radiance.  Their goal was not just to make colors brighter but to give Santa Claus a magical, radiant smile or surround a praying child in celestial light.  In the autumn of his life, Rembrandt could give his face the sadder glow of embers after the original bonfire of his youth had subsided.

Their illusion of light was achieved with a combination of skills and talent on behalf of an artistic purpose, and those don't come with an electric switch, at least not yet.


Tom said...

Nice post David.

"Their illusion of light was achieved with a combination of skills and talent on behalf of an artistic purpose,"

Isn't the understanding of form that allows artists to describe light so well? It is form that brings the beauty of light into being. It amazing how architecturally sound Rembrandt's, Sandblom's and Hawley's drawing is.

MORAN said...

I learned about Hawley from this site. I didn't know he was so awesome.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

What's interesting is that the left Rembrandt is lit the way modern cinematographers most often light their subjects to create an illusion of depth--lit from the side to add contrast while keeping it "realistic", as if the light is coming from a natural source.

The right Rembrandt is lit the way movie stars were lit in the 30s-50s, especially women in close ups--front light at a 45 degree angle. The effect was the same--they looked luminous.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- I agree that the understanding of form is a major ingredient in the successful treatment of light and color here. All three of these artists really know their stuff. The great art teacher George Bridgman used to admonish his students: "Don't think color's going to do you any good. Or lovely compositions. You can't paint a house until it's built."

MORAN-- I think Hawley, like so many illustrators of the 20th century, is under appreciated. When you look at high rez scans, there's a lot of talent that wasn't apparent from the reproductions in 1950s magazines.

Benjamin De Schrijver-- I hadn't thought of that before, but it's an interesting comparison. I certainly agree that portraits of movie stars in the 30s and 40s had a very different, "luminous" quality but I always assumed it had to do with the black and white film of the era.

Laurence John said...

that 'lit from within' thing (frequently used re Rembrandt) has always irked my pedantic side; a human head that was actually 'lit from within' might make an interesting horror character, but the most luminous lighting of the human face is the result of light bouncing off form... the very opposite of 'from within'.

Øyvind Lauvdahl said...

The older Rembrandt might also have been actutely aware not only of the light that is bounced off the surface of things, but of that which hints at the inner workings.

...Or, more mundanely put, subsurface scattering, which literally yields "light from within".

Aleš said...

Laurence, when I think of "lit from within" Van Gogh's orchards pop up in my mind. Some of the blossoms are like light bulbs on branches, they light up their surroundings as if they were suns. It's true that in some of them he eliminated the shadows that could indicate the real sun, but the rich, thick, gleaming, intensified colors made the trees seem active, as if some vital force radiated light from within. He expressed independence of the trees and their individuality in their luminous power. Impressionist's objects on the other hand are usually passively immersed in the sunlight where they reflect the atmospherics. That Rembrandt portrait does have proper shadows but it also has rich, gleaming colors that appear to pump their power from within. The face colors feel like they are emanating light not just reflecting some ceiling candles.

chris bennett said...

It is very telling how the optical luminance generated from a picture's colour connections (colour patches composed into relationships) induces in us humans a poetic feeling that simply looking at a light bulb does not. In other words physical glow is just glow, whereas light evoked by orchestrated chromatic and tonal syntax communicates a sense of spiritual incandescence.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John -- I think your "pedantic side" is construing the word "lit" in the electronic sense just because pedants enjoy being disputatious. But your non-pedantic side recognizes that "lit" means so much more; the word "illustration" comes from the Latin, illustrare meaning "to light up, make light, or illuminate." Figuratively illustrare means "to make clear, disclose, explain; adorn, render distinguished." The "light bouncing off form" that you describe is certainly a part of how Rembrandt, Sundblom and Hawley achieved their effect, but do you think that accurately reporting light bouncing off form (or light interrupted by form, which was one of the great Renaissance innovations that brought us realism through shadows and modeled shading) is enough to account for the brightness and intensity in these images? These artists created an illusion of illumination when they painted a radiant smile, a glowing countenance, a magic aura. They used their painter's bag of tricks to create an artificial glow by judiciously placing one color against another. I'd have to agree with Chris Bennett's comment below, and Kev Ferrara's recent comments in the post about the Tijuana Bibles, that this kind of illumination is more about "a picture's color connections" or the "relationship" between colors. If you want to make colors seem brighter than bright, context becomes extremely important.

Øyvind Lauvdahl-- I was not familiar with "subsurface scattering" but I should have been. Another tool in the artist's bag of tricks. Thanks!

Aleš-- I agree. I don't see it much in reproductions of Van Gogh's work, but when you look close up at the originals of some of his paintings, including some of his portraits, the colors are ablaze, and really do light up the subject in unnatural ways.

Chris Bennett-- As I noted above, I agree with you that color connections, created with skill and imagination, are at the the heart of the effect we are seeing. These pictures have spiritual incandescence that cannot be supplied with an electric switch.

Laurence John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laurence John said...

"but do you think that accurately reporting light bouncing off form is enough to account for the brightness and intensity in these images?"

David, of course not. i'm not such an insensitive dolt that i'm oblivious to the effects that certain painters use to give specific colours a greater degree of intensity or luminosity than real life. i just never see such effects as glowing 'from within' the way things which actually do produce light from within (such as glowworms or lanterns) appear. light falling onto a subject may illuminate the colour of the thing in an incredibly beautiful way (such as sunlight on yellow Autumn leaves in a park) but it's still coming from without (bouncing off form, into our eyes) not from within.

also, light falling ONTO a subject has a narrative function; heavenly light (from above) on a subject alerts the viewer to some sort of significance that the light bestows upon them. the person or thing is 'marked out' by being in the spotlight. there is a different meaning when the light in 'on you' as oppose to coming from 'within' (which is usually reserved for ghosts, aliens or robots).

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- Of course I never intended to imply that you're an "insensitive dolt." I'm consistently impressed with your contributions to these issues.

Are you sure you've never seen "such effects as glowing 'from within' the way things which actually do produce light from within (such as glowworms or lanterns) appear"? What would you consider figures on stain glass windows? Yes, the light passes through them but, sitting inside the cathedral don't they glow from within? Or what about medieval paintings of the madonna which or saints which show them emanating light rays? (a clumsier, less technically proficient way to show glowing figures, but if medieval masters knew how to paint like Sundblom don't you think they'd depict the saints that way? Michelangelo's famous statue of Moses has what looks like horns, but scholars tell us that was his way of trying to sculpt "karan" which mean "shining" or "emitting rays" when Moses returned with the Ten Commandments. With the passage of time, artists developed protocols to make the emanating light more convincing. And if we look at illuminated manuscripts from India, we see a figure of a deity painted in light colors against a night background. These are all examples of light coming from within (usually in addition to, not instead of, light bouncing off the form from without. They are also examples of a narrative function for light from within, yes?

I think that Sundblom and Hawley are generally subtler with their use of light than the above list of examples,, so whether their subjects are truly being lit "from within" is a little less obvious. The issue is further complicated because it's not clear where metaphorical radiance of smile ends and literal radiance of "light from within" starts.

Laurence John said...

David, i'll try to make my distinction as clear as possible:

in Sargent's 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' the only objects in the painting producing their own light are the lanterns. everything else in the painting (including the girl's faces) is reflecting the light of the lanterns and the cool evening light. NONE of the examples in your post show a subject emanating light the way the lanterns do in that painting; they all show a subject with light falling on them / it.

look at the 3rd Sundblom painting of Santa. there is a strong key-light coming from the right side illuminating his white beard and hair, and creating an almost-white highlight on his temple.
the same light also picks out the side of his hand holding the bottle. then there is an amber 'fill' light coming from below left (suggestive of a warm fire) which illuminates the underside of the fingers and his face.

how is any of that light coming 'from within' ?

you're muddling things which are simply brightly, luminously coloured with depictions of things that actually produce light.

(and stained glass windows, light-boxes and computer screens don't count since they emanate their own light regardless of what subject you view on them).

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- Perhaps the difference between us (at least, primarily) is that you're approaching what it means to be "lit from within" more literally than I am. Physicists tell us that the moon is a rock reflecting the light of the sun, yet songwriters write "Moonglow" for young lovers, poets write about moonbeams and drinkers get a glow from "moonshine." You may believe this loose vocabulary is inaccurate, and technically it may be, but let's explore a little bit.

I think your example of Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is very useful for clarifying our positions. Let's all agree that nothing about the painting is physically lit from within, the way it would be on a computer monitor, OK? Certainly if we measure the painting's lumens with a photometer, the objective results will snap us out of Sargent's magic spell and remind us that we are looking at an opaque object where everything we see (including his illusion of 3D lanterns) is reflected light. If we accept Sargent's 2D illusion of depth and light and form, and step into the painting, I agree that "the only objects in the painting producing their own light are the lanterns." Note that those are also the only warm light in the picture. In my view, the lanterns are the least successful or interesting treatment of light in the painting. Similarly, the warm light on the girls' faces does not make them look lit from within, the faces are merely reflecting the light of the lanterns as you say.

What I focus on instead are those marvelous lilies and the back of the neck of that sweet girl on the left. I couldn't say whether the lilies glow off the canvas because they are reflecting "the cool evening light" or because the translucent petals are illuminated from behind by that ambient light. For purposes of this discussion, I'd say that they are "lit from within" because Sargent prioritized them so that their lightness seems to radiate toward us: he contrasted them against that dark background, gave them those weightless, airy shapes, endowed their whiteness with the cool tones of starlight-- I think the lilies are far more illuminated than those mechanically "lit from within" lanterns.

But for me the piece de resistance is that slender little neck. Does it glow because it is reflecting moonlight or because it is the sweetest, most delicate, most vulnerable thing on God's green earth? It's hard to say. When the astronomer looks at the night sky it's his or her job to say which of the two adjacent pin pricks of light is a star glowing from within and which is the planet Venus reflecting light. I see the painter's job a little differently.

Laurence John said...


if you want to simply talk about beautiful passages of painting that have varying degrees of colour intensity / luminosity (the painterly effect of, not actual light) i'm fine with that. we probably wouldn't disagree about much. it's precisely the phrase 'lit from within' that irks me. but i think we can agree to disagree.

(p.s. the problem is also that we're talking about a painterly illusion of light on a flat surface rather than an actual light source, and since you can't paint anything brighter than pure white in a painting to suggest light, a highlight on someone's face could have the same intensity as a lightbulb in the same painting. so relatively speaking, the face is glowing as much as the light-source. whether you parse the painted highlight on the face as 'lit from within' (since it has the same intensity as the painted light-source) becomes a perceptual - emotional thing. but pedantically speaking, it isn't 'lit from within' ... within the illusionistic fiction of the painting)

Давит Карапетян said...

Dear David,
It's always a delight to read your posts. With every new piece I find myself exploring further the artists that you mention, which in turn broadens my views of what can be done in art.

"In the autumn of his life, Rembrandt could give his face the sadder glow of embers after the original bonfire of his youth had subsided." what a great description :)

Recently I found a short story by Balzac called "The unknown masterpiece", I wonder if you've heard of it. I thought it might be interesting for you to read this beautifully rich contemplation of Balzac upon art. Her's more info:

Thank you for this very informative and human hearted blog.

Davit Karapetyan

kings Ndubuisi Blog said...

The 'lit from within' is simply a painting and illustration technique employed and developed by the rembrandt's era. The reason for this is to make pictures or their subjects celestial or glowing. The amount of light will depend on the amount of illumination or reflection the artist want to achieve in the surrounding background or on the subject. They are unlike illustrators and painters of today whose creations look sharper and clearer. The artists of the rembrandt's era or the renaissance period did pay great attention to details.