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Author Topic: En-Light-en your paintings  (Read 1669 times)


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on: July 10, 2010, 11:56:47 PM
The way you use light in your paintings can make or break the final result. It is pretty obvious that if a scene has no light, we can't see it. Yet, if there is too much light we are blinded by it. How do we then ensure that our paintings have enough light?

This is not a simple question to answer as there are many factors we need to take into consideration. They are :

1) The time of day.
2) The direction of the light.
3) Natural or artificial lighting.
4) Ambient lighting.
5) Reflected light.

Let's look at these a little closer.

The time of day


You can look at the same scene from exactly the same position throughout the day and the scene will appear different. To test this, set-up a camera in your garden. Take a photo early morning, midday and late afternoon. If you compare these photos you will see that the morning photo is more hazy, i.e., the contrast between light and dark colours is reduced. The midday photo has very bright and very dark colours. The late afternoon photo will have more darker colours with some brilliant light streaming through the photo here and there.

Also note how the shadows change - look at their shapes, colour, darkness, length and direction.

The direction of the light

Of all the lighting aspects we need to consider in a painting, the direction is the most important. If you are looking at someone's painting and it is beautiful, but something doesn't look right - check the direction the light is coming from on the individual objects in the painting. More often than not some objects will have their light from the wrong direction. It is amazing how many artists forget this, especially when painting outdoors. The light in your painting must always come from the same direction. Even if you are painting a still life with multiple light sources. There must always be one light source that is stronger than the rest. If you don't do this, you are eliminating your shadows and the painting will look flat. Remember - you can't have bright lights without dark shadows. This is why a sunset is so dramatic. You have huge contrasts between the few brilliant beams of light and the deep shadows. This makes the light appear brighter and shadows appear darker.

Natural or artificial lighting

Whether you light source is the sun (natural) or a globe (artificial) will have a definite impact on the colours you use in your painting. This is true for not only the highlights, but also the shadows. Natural light is cooler and bluer than artificial light, which is warmer and yellower.

Ambient lighting

Ambient lighting is the general lightness and colour of the scene. To explain this let's assume you are painting a still life. You have set everything up with a spotlight from one side for dramatic effect. If you were to paint say the top or left half of the painting in the morning, cover that half up so that you can't see it, then paint the other half at night, you will be amazed at the difference in colour. The half you painted at night will have brighter highlights and darker shadows. The reason for this is that you had less ambient light at night than during the day because the sun isn't adding to the 'lightness' in the room so the spotlight had seemed brighter. You can also vary the ambient light's colour to create different moods in your still life. Simply add another, dimmer light. This light can be from another angle or the same angle as the spotlight. Instead of a 'white' light, experiment with different colour globes and you will see a dramatic change in the mood of the same scene. It is the ambient lighting , or overall colour, of the scene that you have changed.

Reflected light

* Picture taken from a label on a LUX Skincare Hand Cream bottle.*

Reflected light is probably the most forgotten and under used effect in painting, yet it can transform a good painting into a stunning one. The most obvious place to see the effects of reflected light is in a still life. If you put a bunch of grapes on the table you will notice that near the 'underside' of the grapes they become lighter. This is because light bounces off the table and hits the 'underside' of the grapes. You don't however only see reflected light in a still life. Light can reflect off a building, making the tree next to it appear brighter on the side nearest the building than the trees farther away from the building. Light can reflect off a person's shirt making the underside of the chin appear lighter and often even taking on a colour similar to that of the shirt. The key to painting reflected light is in observing your subject carefully and purposefully to see where the reflected 'lights' are.


Without light we would have nothing to see or paint. Work hard to increase the effect of light streaming through your paintings and you will see your art come alive.
« Last Edit: September 26, 2010, 10:54:55 PM by nolan »


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Reply #1 on: November 10, 2010, 08:43:40 PM
 :yippee: WOW...this should be mandatory reading at the beginning of every art course! I now believe I wasn't meant to upload my picture just yet. Armed with this bit of inspiration I am going to have one more go at the shadow. Brilliant!  :smart: :clap:  :twothumbs:

Kelley, have you read this?
Cheers, Val

�Creativity is allowing yourselves to make mistakes. Work on knowing which ones to keep!�

- Alvaro Castagnet


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Reply #2 on: November 11, 2010, 03:00:27 AM
:heeha: Thanks for pointing this out, Val.  I complete forgot about this.  I was trying to read as much as I could all at once when I first came on board, but I am finding myself re-read a lot because it didn't make sense at the time or I forgot what I've learned.  I need to find a way to highlight, store to favorites or something.  This is an excellent find and I am in complete agreement with you that everyone should read this.

Thanks for thinking of me. 

Hey, so you're going to do a little more shadowing?  How do you improve on perfect?


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Reply #3 on: November 11, 2010, 06:03:52 AM
Kelley, you can save your favourite threads under your bookmarks, read how to do that HERE O0