All artists know that light is the key. Chiaroscuro is a known, understood, thoroughly documented and well accepted school of art that depends on light and dark. Indeed, without light, art would be as bland and boring as medical illustrations. Although chiaroscuro was known before the Renaissance, it came into its own during that period. Chiaroscuro enabled artists to depict volume, three dimensionality and realism.
In order to faithfully depict fine art for reproduction, light is the key to capturing the texture and realism of the art. Be it canvas, paper, wood, metal or other exotic surfaces, the texture adds to the original. There’s also the matter of the media ranging from acrylic to oil to watercolor to ink sketches to etchings and more. Adding volume, dimensionality and realism to reproductions enhances appeal and value.
The simplest, least expensive light is hazy sunlight that’s been filtered through a soft, even cloud layer or large diffuser. When such conditions are available, take your art outside and either lay it flat on the ground or hang it perpendicular against a neutral color wall. Of course, it’s also helpful if the weather cooperates by not being too hot or cold or windy or dusty. If such conditions are regularly present in your area, please let me know because I want to move there.
Most artists depend on a studio or home office to make photos of their art which can be a hassle of its own. If you have the budget, a large light panel mounted to the ceiling can emulate the sun but it needs several features. First, it should be dimmable and soft. A huge, bright light on a typical 8′ to 10′ home ceiling will be difficult to control. Second, it needs to be reasonably well color managed. The simplest color temperature is between 5000 Kelvin to 6500 Kelvin but, even more important is CRI or color rendering index. This tells you how faithfully color is seen compared to natural light. The best possible CRI is 100 and the lowest score for art reproduction is about 85. As a general rule, stay away from fluorescent lights. LEDs are pretty much the best choice today.
Two inexpensive (~$73 ea) lights like the Yongnuo YN300 III (left) is all that’s needed for an indoor shoot. Position the lights on either side of your art at about 45 degrees and adjust the intensity so your exposure is good at about f/5.6 at whatever speed your camera requires in aperture or manual mode. Of course, this assumes your camera is mounted on a tripod to eliminate shake.
For about the same price, you might opt for an LED shop light like this Ryobi battery operated model at Home Depot. The downside is that it requires a battery or extension cord and isn’t dimmable. Also, CRI might not be as high as a light designed for photography. Whatever you use, always keep in mind, “Inverse square law” and “Angle of incidence equals angle of reflection.”
One last word of advice. Don’t use flash, especially not the anemic camera top mounted flash found on many point & shoot and consumer dSLR cameras. Without going into a lot of detail, just trust me that it will be an exercise in frustration.