On Creating with Natural North Light

Miller White Fine Arts
Jul 23, 2018 3:24PM

by Romolo Del Deo, Provincetown, MA, 2018

For an artist, light is a vital creative tool. My father, Salvatore, and I both live and work in Provincetown, MA - famous for its light - at the furthest tip on the hook of Cape Cod. Year round, we are bathed in reflected light. The kind of light that makes everything look good and everyone feel good. This remarkable light is due to a quirk of geography. Provincetown is a fragile spit of sand surrounded by a huge geological “light pan” of limitless sparkling ocean. Daylight hours are suffused in a particular kind of glowing light. Even on dark and stormy days, when powerful imposing clouds roll in from offshore and fill the sky, the environment is still remarkably luminous.

Historically, humans lived and worked in a natural rhythm dictated by the course of the sun. Today, to our detriment, we have decoupled our working lives from natural light. Denatured it. Why does this matter? Why should we care?

"Pieta" in progress in the studio, by Romolo Del Deo

Perhaps an answer can be learned from the study of art. The reputation of Provincetown’s light has a long and storied art history. With such gorgeous light, and an abundance of colorful marine subjects, it is no wonder that at the end of the 18th century, artists came here to paint the natural beauty and ambience. By 1916, this migration was so pronounced that the Boston Globe proclaimed Provincetown the world’s largest art colony. Important American artists like Charles Hawthorne, Hans Hoffman and Helen Frankenthaler were inspired by the light here over the last century. Today, Provincetown still remains the oldest, continuously operating artist colony in the U.S., and its light, which set that all in motion, still has something to teach us.

Remember all that shimmering ocean surrounding Provincetown? Well, photographers have a term for all that reflected light. They call it “bounce.” If you’ve ever been on a professional photoshoot, you have probably seen conspicuous use of bounce, indirect light that is bounced off reflective surfaces. Photographers intentionally manipulate bounce to create soft gradient light that enhances the objects being photographed. It permits the eye to sense a wide range of delicate variations of tone. During the glorious days of summer, Provincetown’s bounced light made for a wonderful way to create art outside. But, what about when the winds of New England winter blew cold? The solution? Build studios, illuminated by large windows facing toward the even reflected light of the north .

"Icarus," in progress, by Romolo Del Deo

North light studios became an iconic artist’s workspace. But the history of the north light studio goes back much, much further. They were treasured by Renaissance artists who made the study of accurate representation a Zen-like search, spanning centuries. Cezanne, in the 19th Century, had his north light studio, as did most art schools in the pre-modern era. However, as the world evolved with the introduction of new technologies and methods, this natural green practice became a forgotten relic. Art-making was able to move away from observation. Artists adapted, letting go of the nostalgic notion of the gracious north light studio, however, by so doing, artists unintentionally denatured their connection to light.

Unfortunately, so did the rest of us ...

Artists describe our world in many different ways, and art-making works its way into every aspect of society. Think of artists like cultural petri dishes, where the cures, as well as the challenges, of the future are incubating. By turning away from natural light, artists foreshadowed a general cultural direction toward computer screens, televisions, and handheld devices. Now, as we all totally immerse ourselves in multiple forms of denatured light, we are sending our bodies problematic information. Today’s workforce has spent most of their life with cathode rays, florescent tubes and LEDs projected directly at their eyes. That’s a lot of unnatural light. And it’s making your brain work in ways that might not be so healthy.

Most of us understand that the light receptors inside our eyes - called rods and cones - pipe images to the visual cortex of our brain, allowing us to orient ourselves in space. What is less commonly known, is that we also have a third set of receptors discovered only recently, around 2001, allowing us to orient ourselves in time. These new-found receptors send light to an entirely different part of our brain - the Hypothalamus - which regulates just about every core function in our bodies. Force feeding light to your Hypothalamus is like jamming a stick in the gears of your body’s essential machinery.

"Chariot Solaire II," in progress, by Romolo Del Deo

Different light spectra trigger your hypothalamus to change your metabolic and mental processes accordingly. As the winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine - Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young - attested, Circadian rhythms impact more than just sleep, they affect every part of your body’s function. As we go through the day, these rhythms respond to light. The brain reads Blue light as morning light; it causes alertness and coordination. Yellow, evening light raises body temperature and melatonin production, preparing us for sleep, much like the burn out phase of a rocket entering orbit. Obviously, I am not a scientist nor psychologist, but I am an artist with over 40 years of professional artistic observation that points to a strong connection between the quality of light, creativity and well-being.

As I mentioned earlier, artists are society’s petri dishes, exploring new concepts before they become part of the culture. Artists stand outside the mainstream; they have the latitude to explore the new and rediscover the forgotten. In the winter of 2015, I launched a successful crowd-funding campaign to build my own Provincetown north light studio, based on my insights, inspired by the artists of the previous century and designed to rely on natural, bounced light. As a sculptor, I rely on indirect north light to aid me in seeing the forms of my sculpture. Direct “hard” light can flatten forms, but just as in photography, an abundance of indirect bounced light builds the shapes and allows you to see subtle variations in surface.

My father, Salvatore, who will soon be turning 90, arises every day and walks to the painting studio he built himself when I was just a child. There, he paints only with the available natural light that streams through his north light window. He never turns on a light bulb. People who see his paintings remark not only on their luminance, but also on the calm and serenity that emanate from the canvases, just as it does from the man.

"Daedalus-Destiny of Flight" at Studio Romolo, by Romolo Del Deo

Maybe, designing your workflow around the availability of natural light, streaming in from a north light window provides guidance for the 21st century. I believe renaturing our light will do more for us than just help keep our Hypothalamus healthy and our metabolism balanced:  renaturing our minds with natural light will help us see the world differently, a world with a longer, more sustainable future for ourselves, our communities and our planet. To me, that is the very definition of best ractices for an artist. Renature your light.

Romolo Del Deo - Inaugural TEDxProvincetown, 6/30/18

Miller White Fine Arts