Contre-jour lighting is a type of backlighting where you place the subject right in front of a bright, sunny sky. In French the phrase literally means “against the day,” a poetic way to express this mysterious and powerful effect.
The term is still in common use among photographers. But cameras can’t deliver this effect as powerfully as painters can, because cameras are unable to respond to a wide enough range of intensities, and the silhouettes tend to go to black.
Artists of the 19th Century did wonders with contre jour. You’ll find it with Royal Academicians like Atkinson Grimshaw (upper left), Barbizon painters like Constant Troyon (the other images here), and American landscapists like Frederick Church.
Troyon’s student Leon Belly used this effect to capture a feeling of dazzling, intoxicating illumination in several of his Orientalist paintings, like this one of water buffalo in a desert oasis. I learned about contre-jour lighting from art historian Kristian Davies, who discusses it in his brilliant book The Orientalists (Laynfaroh, 2005).
When a form is placed contre-jour, it goes into silhouette. The colors weaken. Shadows stretch forward. Details disappear as the glare of the light spills over the edges of the form. The sun itself often shines from inside the frame of the picture, making the viewer’s eyes squint involuntarily.
I’ve been fascinated by the idea of contre-jour since starting work on Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, and it crops up in quite a few of the paintings in the new book, like the one above, where Arthur and Bix are approaching the Imperial Palace.
Today I visit Rhode Island School of Design. Stay tuned in a couple of days for the report.