When representational landscape painters are asked what motivates them to paint, they often speak of the light. There is something so alluring about various lighting effects. Some are drawn to the quiet mellow lighting associated with the wooded interior and others to the highly contrasted light of early morning or late afternoon. Artists also mention the atmospheric glow of thick air associated with moisture and pollution, or reference the clarity of thin air linked with higher elevations as motivation. In addition, there is the position of the artist to the light source. Some like the rim light produced by backlit objects, others relish the sidelight that produces solid form structure, and many expound the virtues of soft flat overcast lighting. After talking with a variety of painters about what they like in lighting effects, it becomes clear that there isn’t just one lighting situation that works. This is part of what makes each artist individual.
To become better adept at understanding the individual qualities of these diverse lighting situations, it is imperative that a painter spends time in observation. From childhood, we are trained to associate an identity to recognizable shapes. This sight recognition can prove to be a major hindrance when it comes to seeing the quality of light. The light’s characteristics get lost in the prejudiced knowledge of the object. Even though individual objects have certain things that are identified to them, such as a tree being green and a rock brown, it is the quality, or personality, of the light that unites the scene. It is the one uniting factor. This produces a trilogy of object, light and eyes. When we quickly look at a scene, we make associations that are based in our stored knowledge about these recognizable objects. The longer we look, allowing ourselves to observe the tendencies of the light, the better we understand the shared effect the light has on the situation. These observations can be noted in sketchbooks and eventually become internalized, making us more intuitive painters.
If you struggle to see a difference between lighting scenarios, ask yourself these simple questions in advance of painting:
- What is the general lighting situation, overcast or clear?
- Where is the main light source positioned, in front, behind, to the side, or above?
- Is the air heavy with atmosphere or thin and clear?
- Is there a color cast to the light that you can identify?
By answering these lighting questions, more sensitivity will be used in portraying the scene. You will become more in tune to the effects that light can produce and you will never look at a photograph in quite the same way.
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