My wife recently turned me on to the works of artist Andrew Wyeth and I was struck by his aesthetic decisions as a realist painter. His portraits have a look that you can find in many movies today, dare we say his paintings feel "cinematic".
This is probably not because Wyeth studied cinematography, but rather that the best cinematographers were studying him (as well as other artists).
It makes sense that if you want to achieve a naturalistic look, you look to realist painters. Certain cinematographers feel bound to principles such as three point lighting. But three point lighting rarely happens in real life, and for the most part never occurs naturally in interiors. Yet, we find so many narrative films where the talents feels unnaturally "lit".
Wyeth sees the world in an elevated way, beautiful compositions, texture, streaking lights, and long shadows. His paintings live in the world as they see it. His choices of brush work and color palette and composition may be creatively stylized, and not so true to life. But yet his paintings resonate as natural and real.
Often I find in Wyeth's work that there is a single source of light. Sounds simple, but a cinematographer who is trained in how to manipulate images with artificial lights can learn from this restraint. The world has one sun, one source of light that motivates almost all other sources of light. Embracing the principle of single source lighting makes images feel more natural. The composition of the subject is also interesting here. The subject is pressed up against a wall. There is hard light creating a very strong nose shadow and a very long shadow next to his head. There is also soft lighting as the lamp reflects off of the wall and wraps around the far side of the head. I don't want to get too philosophical, but it seems like Wyeth may be using the mixed lighting in a narrative way to convey a depth of emotion, that is not incongruent with the subject's expression. If this were a still frame from a movie, I would want to watch it to find out who this character is.
Another rule I see is that, for the most part, Wyeth's subjects are looking towards the "key light" or the main source of light. Coupled with that, Wyeth's perspective as an artist is from the "short side" or the shadow side. This means, his subjects will have depth and dimensional on a medium that is bound in two dimensions. In the painting above we see the use of negative space, we again see a really interesting expression. We are drawn straight to the face with all of its contours and features. Nothing in the frame distracts us from where our eyes want to go.
Wyeth also embraces the idea of contrast ratios. There is a tonal difference within a subject's face and then again from the face to the background. This feels natural, because this is how we would expect a single light source to fall off across a subject and from the subject to the background. This effect, remains in the world of natural and real, but makes the subject pop.
The painting above registers as one of Wyeth's flatter paintings. Even so, notice the subtle tonality across the frame. Even though the color range is limited, we see that the background contrasts against the left (key) side of her face. On the right side of her face the background contrasts with both the shadows along her cheek and neck, her dark hair, and even the little bit of light that leaks onto the far right side of her neck. We can see this contrast if we took the painting into Lightroom and turned off the saturation, to make it a grayscale image. Or better yet, we can use a tool called False Color to see the tonal range represented with different colors. Though this painting has little global contrast, it has tons of micro contrast both as you view the image horizontally (left to right) and vertically (top to bottom). Notice a smooth gradient of about 6 different tones on her face (yellow, white, pink, light gray, green, dark grey). This is what feels cinematic to me. Subtle mastery of tonality to convey feelings and emotions.
What other artists do you know of that register a look that feels "cinematic"?