In search of form and color in north light

When we moved into an apartment with north light in 2015, I felt sooo incredibly lucky. Why? Painting in north light is an artist’s dream because it offers such consistent light during the day. In classes at school, I have been painting most of the past two years or so in artificial light. Now, I am learning to switch my thinking from the warm colors in light and cool colors in the shadows (artificial light) to the reverse. In other words, there are, typically, cool colors in the light and warm colors in the shadows in north light.

Color study in north light no shadow shapes Julie Dyer Holmes, fine artistBut thinking about color temperature in the light, is only the start of it all. Why? Having humongous north light facing windows is one thing. Setting up still life objects that effectively use that north light is a whole new problem. When I set up still life objects in front of the window, I had a problem. There was no light and shadow on any of the objects I planned to paint. Check out the vague form shadow shapes in this study.

How can I improve the lighting for this still life set up? My mentor, Natalie Italiano, suggested that I add curtains to cover the windows to better control the light. This solution is similar to a camera lens reducing the aperture (opening). When I added more curtains, the shadows cast by the still life objects were stronger. But the shadows on the forms themselves (two onions and a garlic) were non-existent. Ever resourceful and helpful, Natalie suggested I contact mighty Darren Kingsley and Shira Friedman, at Studio Incamminati, for advice.

I learned from both Darren and Shira that controlling how much light is coming into the still life set up (as Natalie advised) and reducing the value of what the light is bouncing off of can make a huge difference. What the heck does the light bouncing off the wall have to do with the ability to create form shadows? In my case, the wall opposite my north light windows was bright enough that it was reflecting light back into my still life set up.

Still life set up in north light studio of Julie Dyer Holmes Philadelphia PAI visited Shira’s studio in this light/shadow seeking investigation. I noticed Shira has a black piece of fabric tacked along the wall opposite her north light wall. So, I decided to go ahead and dig up some dark pieces of fabric (read: old fleece blankets) and tack them to the wall opposite the north light window in my studio. Guess what? This solution worked (see photo of the new and improved still life set up in this paragraph) Now I have beautiful form shadows on my lovely simple still life set up of 2 onions and a garlic.

Are you a painter interested in learning more about north light or light in general? Here’s a nifty, quick article with some good information.

Now it’s time to move onto the next creative problem to solve which is painting this delightful, delicious set up. Stay tuned for more information on this!

What technical problems have you struggled with in your creative practice and how did you seek to solve them?


  1. Beth
    September 28, 2017

    Fascinating thing to contemplate, Julie. I absolutely LOVE the photograph of your new set-up. Really gives a sense of what you’re doing and it’s a piece of art on its own.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Julie Holmes
      October 3, 2017

      Thanks Beth – it took more time than I expected to make this set up work. But – shazam – what I learned was invaluable!

  2. Jim Dyer
    October 1, 2017

    Very very interesting! I’d never thought about creating shadows or the qualities of shadows. Guess I’ve always been just a “point and shoot” kind of guy.

    Thanks for the insight.

    • Julie Holmes
      October 3, 2017

      Hi Jim,
      Thanks so much for reading about this light/shadow adventure.
      I’ve always thought your photos were a-mazing and thoughtful (belying your “point and shoot” comment) 😉


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