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How Light Affects Mood

Let there be light.

The quality of light adds emotional content to a scene. Think how it feels to be in a cold, damp, dark home or one where a warm breeze drifts from room to room. Consider the moods created by a sunlit field of red poppies in Provence, the glare of fluorescent lights in an airless Wall Street office, or swans floating on a pond at twilight.

In classes, I sometimes lead a guided meditation where writers think of a place they felt safe and relaxed. They picture themselves as they were then, consider whether they were alone or with others. Were they indoors or outdoors? What time of year was it? Then they write about what happened. Did someone say something? Did someone move? I invite them to reflect on their sensations—sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. And to note what the light was like.

In the Dutch Masters’ paintings, light is like a character. At the Frick Collection in New York, a painting by Johannes Vermeer reveals an intimate interior flooded with golden light. The audio guide explains:

Whatever the nature of the human exchange depicted here, it soon seems obvious that the real subject of the picture is light — the intangible light shown bursting in through the open window, breaking up reflections in the leaded panes, muffled through the curtains, caressing the soft plaster wall, lingering sporadically on glowing fabrics, sparkling glass, or the soft expanse of the vellum map...But the light recedes into dark corners and will soon accent the young woman's beguiling face and soft kerchief differently. In this subtle fashion, Vermeer makes light a metaphor for time, and reminds us ever so gently of its inevitable consequences.


Write about a time you felt safe and relaxed. Where were you? What happened? What was the quality of light?