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Creator of "Dinotopia"! This daily weblog by James Gurney is for illustrators, comic artists, plein-air painters, sketchers, animators, art students, and writers.
1. Painting in Bright Light

A plein-air painter friend of mine posed the following question: 


"I have noticed that when I paint outside I nearly always return with a less than bright painting. It will look good in the field but then look disappointingly desaturated in the studio. I assume this is because the pupils are so dilated outside and letting in so much light that when I'm back in the studio and my pupils are normal again and the light bouncing off the paint is considerably reduced (thus reducing chroma). I've thought I could make a kind of blinker out of black tubes to restrict the amount of light entering my eyes except in the foveal area. But due to my bifocals I doubt I could get such a gizmo to work. Obviously one could try and overcompensate for this effect by adding high chroma pigment but this seems untrue to the plein air idea. Have you run across any solutions to this problem?" 
—Squinting

Dear Squinting,
I'm glad you raised the point because the same thing happens to me. I also notice a similar effect when I bring a finished painting from the studio outdoors into direct sunlight. The sunlight brings out all sorts of color and detail in the dark areas that I hadn't noticed in the studio. 

In theory, when a person goes outdoors into bright light, the pupils should constrict to the appropriate size, just as a camera adjusts the exposure settings. This can take quite a few minutes, especially as we get older. When I first go outside, my eyes are dilated more than they should be, so it's naturally easier to distinguish those dark colors.  

I asked a vision scientist how the sensitivity of the cones (color receptors in the retina) changes with increasing brightness levels, and I was told that the ability to distinguish colors increases with increasing light levels. In very low light, such as moonlight, the cones are barely functioning, but they get better and better at their job as the light increases—up to a point. In extreme glare conditions, such as bright white snow or sand, the color sensitivity begins to drop off. In that extreme environment, neutral gray sunglasses might help.


The best solution for me under normal conditions is to put a diffusing white umbrella over my work area so that the illumination on the work is close to the same as the illumination on the subject. Bright light in itself usually isn't the problem -- it's different amounts or kinds of illumination on the work and the subject. 

I also try to avoid painting with the canvas or the palette in direct sunlight if I can help it, especially if the light on the painting is higher than the subject.

The issue may also be the kind of light you have indoors. As I'm sure you know, if you're working under incandescent or cool white fluorescent indoors, you're getting a distorted color rendition, so your eyes will have a hard time seeing color accurately whatever the light level. For suggestions on studio lighting, see the post linked below.
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