The second indication that Sprout isn’t making ‘a pretty picture,’ comes from the dominant light in Fifth Street. The majority of the lighting in this painting comes from the reflected ‘remnant’ light bounced off the billboard and spilling onto the sidewalk.
Continued from “Carefully Described Terrain, Sprout’s Fifth Street – Part 1 of 3,” published March 17, 2018
NATURAL LIGHT DOMINATES PAINTING
A painter uses vision to see the scene, so everything a painter puts into a scene is also the result of light. Light is the most basic element used to construct an image, and Fifth Street meticulously details the character of the scene’s light.
Throughout the history of modern art, from the Renaissance on, light has been used as primary tool to describe depth and space. Most often, even to this day in photography, the light of choice – what is considered ‘the best’ light – are the many varieties of daylight.
Vermeer’s portraits use the diffusion of reflected Dutch ‘Northern Light,’ with all its refinement and detail to fill shadows full of detail.
Vermeer, “The Milkmaid,” ~1658 is a perfect example of diffused Northern light typical of Dutch renaissance painting.
Sprout also masterfully paints his landmark still life “Osterizer, 1993” in what looks like a scene bathed in similar, if brighter, indirect light.
Osterizer, 1993 by Tobin Sprout, 60×40 inches, oil on canvas
Further south in Italy during the Renaissance, scenes and portraits were painted with stronger sunlight. In so many ways, from the Renaissance to contemporary photography, sunlight, in its various incarnations, has been the singular standard of quality for serious makers of images in the Western world. It is considered the highest quality light.
In Virgin and Child by Italian painter Cima da Congegliano below, the modeling of the sunlight on the subjects looks nearly identical to a Profoto photography portrait with light diffusion modifications in 2018.
Natural light is king is Western art.
Virgin and Child, Cima da Congegliano, oil on board, about 1500. Museum of Wales, England
But in Fifth Street, Sprout is painting a scene devoid of sunlight, the well-spring of dimensionality and quality. Instead, he chooses a scene full of what is considered ‘ugly’ light, the leftover light of a 20th Century American city.
Obviously Sprout is adept at rendering with various types of sunlight – particularly indirect sunlight, but he’s also got a serious knack for doing light in general. He’s just choosing something different.
Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas
What makes the light in Fifth Street great isn’t just that it’s impressively rendered, but how precisely “true” the light is to the night time urban experience.
“TOTO, I’VE A FEELING WE’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANY MORE.”
A major part of the story of the 20th Century is a that millions of people moving to cities shifted from a ‘default natural light’ country setting to a ‘default artificial light’ city setting. One of the 20th Century’s best painters of light and chroniclers of this cultural shift is Edward Hopper. If Sprout’s Fifth Street references any painter, aside from his own work on paintings like Phone Booth, it’s Edward Hopper.
And if Sprout’s referencing any one Hopper painting, it’s The Art Institute of Chicago’s Nighthawks.
Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper, Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago
Nighthawks is a painting famous not only on its own merits, but also for the send ups this scene has inspired, most famously featuring Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe with Elvis serving behind the diner counter.
Boulevard of Broken Dreams, 1985, Gottfried Helnwein, Collection of “20 Somethings Everywhere”
The nature of how fluorescent lighting describes its surroundings is a significant part of Nighthawks, a portrait of a different unremarkable city corner in New York City. Fluorescence have a kind of aggressively non-descript light that wraps around subjects in a way that makes them look flat and deflated. Both Nighthawks and Fifth Street attack this unique characteristic of fluorescent light head on, to great effect.
The fluorescent light in Hopper’s Nighthawks shows overlapping shadows just outside the windows, (fig. 1) as it is cast on the street. To show variety and contrasting types of light, Hopper paints the much sharper, more defined lines of light and shadow coming from a bright streetlight casting illumination from outside the frame from the left of the image (fig. 2).
Fig 1. Detail of Fluorescent Shadows, Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper
Fig. 2. Detail of Streetlight Shadows, Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper
Sprout defines the character of fluorescent light in his Fifth Street with a sharp, almost fake looking, shadow slicing the fire hydrant completely in half (fig. 3a) while casting a blunt shadow characteristic of a light source coming from a broad, rather than singular, area. The light also has a kind of uneasy feeling smoothing over of the uneven concrete abutting the choppy wall where the billboard is mounted (fig. 3b).
Fig. 3a. Fluorescent Light Detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout
Fig. 3b, Fluorescent Light Detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout
Even the uneveness of the concrete is a near perfect description of the location as this present-day photograph provided by Dayton resident and Tobin Sprout painting fan Sean Merkle shows. The strange upheaval of the concrete creating a kind of wavy line where it abutts the wall of the building is still a match, 25 years later.
Detail, current photo of corner portrayed in Fifth Street. Courtesy of Sean Merkle, 2018. Notice how accurately the uneven concrete is portrayed.
Sprout also mixes a variety of light into his ambient night lighting painting. Two windows show the incandescent bulb lighting we associate with home interiors. The primary interior lighting is directly above the billboard where we see a clock, wallpaper and and a thin curtain blowing (fig. 4).
Fig. 4, Detail of illuminated window, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout
The second interior light shows a lone window across Fifth Street illuminating a refrigerator (fig. 5).
Fig. 5, Detail of illuminated window, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout
The final mix comes from the left of the painting where Sprout has included his own streetlight illumination and shadows into the mix of exterior, night, urban lighting. We see the clearly defined shadow of the streetlight poll running up the parapet on the far side of the street (fig. 6), very much like the well-defined shadows in the background of Hopper’s Nighthawks.
Fig. 6, Streetlight shadow detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout
The purposeful rendering of all these types of light makes Fifth Street ‘true to life.’ It is by this truth achieved through diligent rendering that we ‘believe’ the scene. Fifth Street is accurate according to what we understand subconsciously from our personal experience and cultural understanding of this scene.
Sprout’s attention to detail allows what is common to become universal. We are not forced to suspend disbelief as we are in a work of fiction with too many plot holes.
The stage is portrayed accurately to allow everything else the painting has to offer: The art historical references. The cultural shifts. The latent human drama.
Original analysis by T.R. Brogunier, posted March 25, 2018. Originally scheduled for posting March 23, this essay was delayed from publishing for two days.
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CAREFULLY DESCRIBED TERRAIN, PART III
Join Flood here next Thursday, March 29, for the third and final installment of this three part essay on yet another remarkable Tobin Sprout painting from 1993.
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