Another Take On Inspiration!

by William Lulow

All artists need inspiration! Sounds like kind of a trivial point, but it’s certainly true. Living in the New York City area should be inspiration in and of itself because there’s always so much going on here. I can remember visiting the Metropolitan Museum Of Art many times just to look at the paintings and especially the portraits of the Dutch Masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt. What always impressed me was how these painters used light! And, seeing as how there was no electricity in the 1600s, they used daylight and most particularly, the beautiful light that exists in Holland. Now Holland is quite a bit further north than New York, and that may have contributed something to the special “light” they were able to achieve in their portraits. Some have even said that Vermeer might have even used what is called a “camera obscura” which is basically just a darkened room or box with a lens on one end to focus the light rays on the other end, usually a blank wall. It is quite similar to today’s cameras absent, of course, a way of fixing the image on a plate or paper of some kind. That process wouldn’t be invented until about two hundred years later! And sensors…that didn’t come until only twenty years ago or so.

But, if you visit any museum these days that displays paintings of the Dutch Masters, you can’t help but be inspired by the light they were able to reproduce with oil paint and canvas. And, of course, that was the “medium” of the day at that time. Many of these painters became very well-known in their lifetimes and many did very well financially based on commissions.

I recently attended an exhibition of paintings of one of these Dutch Masters, Anthony Van Dyck at New York’s Frick Museum. Below is a self-portrait from the exhibition:


What struck me about this painting is how all the elements are brought together to draw attention to the face. Everything else in the portrait is kind of subdued except the face and the hands. And even the position of the hands seems to add to the composition directing the viewer’s eyes toward the face. The starkness of the hands and their very position with the bottom hand pointing up and the top one  down. I can almost imagine lighting a portrait like this with my large, photographic umbrella to get just the right light on the face.

For a portrait photographer, these paintings contain many lessons. The poses, the costumes, the backgrounds and the light itself. These painters most certainly have had to “see” the light to be able to reproduce it with their paints. And that’s what is inspirational about them. They also have stood the test of time. They are just as impressive now as they were 400 years ago! And they make me want to explore light even more and above all, to make more portraits!