Light literally brings a picture to life. Not only does it reveal the shapes and colors of the objects in your scene, but when used correctly, it can enhance the overall composition of your drawing or painting. Thus, it?s essential for you to understand the different types of lighting conditions and their effects on your subjects so you can use light to improve your art. You can begin by learning about the six main types of light sources, plus the resulting reflected light.
The Big Six
Front light. Front light isn?t the most visually pleasing type of lighting because it eliminates and hides shadows, as you can see in my barn sketch above. Without the introduction of a definite light and dark side, the change of planes isn?t evident. This tends to flatten everything in a scene, so it?s difficult to achieve the illusion of a third dimension.
A Frontal Attack: In this sketch, I bathed the barn structures in full front light coming from a low light source. The angle of the light gave a little deeper value to the angled roofs because they deflect the light up, not back into the viewer’s eye. To help separate the different planes, I used diagonal shading to exaggerate the value changes on some of the walls.
Front-quarter light. Positioned as if it?s coming over your shoulder, front-quarter light separates the planes into light and dark areas. The shadow patterns created by this type of light clearly define the shapes and forms of the objects, such as the lighthouse in the sketch at left, and add interest to the overall design. Because it?s so easy to understand and re-create on your surface, front-quarter light is probably the most commonly used type of lighting.
The Over-the-shoulder Look: Here, the light was coming from a 45-degree angle behind my left shoulder. This quarter-front light created an attractive pattern of light and dark areas, which helped to define the changes of flat planes, as well as the curved shape of the lighthouse.
Sidelight. Since sidelight puts a greater emphasis on the light and dark sides of objects, it can be a bit trickier to handle. For instance, you don?t want the strictly half-light-and-half-dark images to become monotonous. Thus, with sidelight, it?s important to pay attention to your cast shadows. Just as I did in my forest sketch on the next page, you can use cast shadows to add balance and variety to the scene.
Light on the Side: In this forest scene, a direct sidelight bathes one side of each tree trunk in light and throws the far sides into darkness. The shadows march straight across the composition, so I varied the direction and shape of the cast shadows for balance. I also placed some dark value patches of background foliage next to the lighted side of some of the tree trunks to add depth to the scene.
Three-quarter backlight. This type of light comes from a 45-degree angle behind the subject, either to the left or right, as in the farm buildings sketch below. With this light source, lighted areas of objects usually appear as thin, vertical slivers while the major portion of the scene is in shadow. When used effectively, three-quarter backlight can add impact and drama to any subject.
Mood Lighting: The little slivers of brilliant light against the larger shadowed sides of the objects facing you create an aura of excitement. I deliberately positioned myself a little to the left of the buildings in this scene to take advantage of this effect. But since three-quarter backlighting usually only happens in the early morning or late afternoon under rapidly changing conditions, I had to work fast.
Backlight. Backlighting is simply a silhouette in most instances. You might think that backlight would destroy most of the details by throwing objects into deep shadow. But you can retain the suggestion of form by varying the darkest shadow areas, even though there?s a minimal change in value or color. Notice how I?ve varied the intensity of my dark shadows around the artist in my sketch below.
Back to the Source: In this scene from a watercolor workshop in Italy, backlight came streaming up the narrow twisting street, placing the artist in almost complete silhouette. To help the composition, I angled the foreground building a little so it received some light. Then I used reflected light to temper the dark values in the deepest shadows.
Top light. Under what I call “high noon on the prairie” light, objects or buildings will be mostly in shadow with the exception of the uppermost horizontal planes. True top light does not normally exist in natural settings, at least not in the United States. Even as the sun crosses overhead at noon during the summer, it?s still coming from a southern angle. However, top light can be generated in the studio, and used to create interesting, unusual shadow patterns.
High Noon on the Prairie: To indicate that the sun is high and nearly overhead, I intensified the shadows under the barn’s eaves, allowing them to get progressively lighter as they moved down the walls. These long cast shadows on the vertical walls of the barn say “high noon.”
One fascinating result of light falling from a light source is reflected light. A strong light shining on a light or bright object typically “reflects” or bounces off that object onto nearby objects. In a landscape, for example, light might bounce off a white silo and onto the wall of a red barn next to it. In a still life, light might reflect off a light-colored pitcher onto the darker tablecloth beneath it. This explains why values sometimes change across the surface of an object?reflected light is hitting some part of the plane, lightening that area slightly.
Once you?re aware of this phenomenon, you?ll start to see it happening everywhere. And by including the value and color changes created by reflected light, you can enhance the realism in your art.
When you?re working in the studio with a still life or portrait setup, you have the advantage of using a constant light source. But when sketching or painting on location, be aware that the light direction is always changing. So in the early stages of working, it?s probably best to establish where the light comes from and stick with that decision as your composition develops, even if your light source changes. You want the light, shadows and cast shadows in your art to be fairly consistent so that your work looks natural.
Of course, you can make some adjustments to improve the pattern of lights and darks in your composition. For example, you might want to intensify the contrasts of the lights and darks at your center of interest, or minimize a distractingly light or dark area in a less important section.
The Fun Part
As you become more familiar with the effects of the different light conditions through practice, you can begin to experiment. Suggest an unusual angle for the light source by lengthening the cast shadows to infer a low angle or shortening the cast shadows to create a higher, overhead angle. Then set yourself a bigger challenge by attempting to draw a scene in a different light condition than what you?re actually seeing. You can also make your drawing moodier by using three-quarter backlight, or give it an odd, surreal feeling with top light or front light. Above all, have fun and take advantage of your artistic ability to establish the type of light that you find most appealing and appropriate to your subject.
Jerry McClish is an artist and workshop instructor. He?s based in Bradenton, Florida.