When I started teaching painting years ago, the first hurdle I had to jump was organizing my thoughts about creating art. In doing so, I felt that I would be in a better position to present this information in a clear and understandable format. Just that alone forced me to be a better painter, but more importantly, pointed me to the realization that I had gaps in my own learning that needed to be filled. As I taught, I learned, and as I learned, I taught, and so it goes to this day!
My first approach was to teach the tools of painting, (drawing, color, value edges, and brushwork), which I’ve written about extensively over the years and more recently in a series of articles that started on May 24, 2017, in Outdoor Painter, for PleinAir. As I grew artistically, along with my understanding of teaching I began to sense that teaching the tools by themselves was not enough; there was something missing. The missing part was light and design. Yes, I had taught these in conjunction with the tools before, but it was always done as an incidental component, and I don’t feel that I gave these two huge concepts the attention they rightly deserve. Quite frankly, they are the glue that holds every good painting together and, conversely, is the reason some paintings fall apart! This summer I added two more elements to the painting process, because of discussions and thoughts that I had with my painting buddy, John Poon. These two important elements are concept and a solid painting procedure. So, my approach to painting and teaching are constantly growing, and that’s the way I like it.
The rubric of learning now looks like this:
2 – Light
3 – Design
4 – The Tools (drawing, color, value, edges, and brushwork)
5 – Painting Procedure
I’m always amazed when I see an artist who at a very young age grasps these concepts early, for whatever reason — great instruction, pure genius, or both? I could list a number of these folks by name, but you can fill in the blanks; you need only look at some of the many great artists out there to fill in the names of your choice, and chances are you will be right!
I recently had the privilege of attending a demo that was given through the Wilcox Gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which was being done by the very young virtuoso named Kyle Ma. (Kyle, by the way, for all his young knowledge and accomplishments, is a very humble guy with no pretensions or large ego that I could detect. He’s just a great kid who happens to be a great painter at a young age!) As I sat there with Jim Wilcox for part of the time, we would occasionally turn to each other, smile, and just shake our heads in astonishment at how much this young guy “gets it” at his age. I don’t know about Jim, but at 18, I was a bit of a knucklehead who gave up painting for those brain-dead years I call high school! Anyway, what I heard from Kyle, and every other good painter I have ever known, breaks down in one way or another to the combination of concept, light, design, and tools, along with a good painting procedure. It always comes back to that. Even if they organize their process differently than the way I do, at its core it always goes back to these basic concepts.
So, today I would like to reiterate some facts about light by pointing out some of its characteristics as well as the things that influence the way it appears in nature.
There are various types of light:
- Light side of an object
- Direct light
- Shadow side of an object
- Core shadow
- Reflected sky light
- Reflected light from the ground plane
- Dark accents
- Cast shadow
The following conditions all have an effect on the way light looks to the viewer:
- Time of day
- Moisture and dust particles in the air
- Distance of objects from the viewer
- Materials that make up the objects, which in turn dictate how the light looks on them
- Speed of directional change within an object
- Local color
Directional change, by the way, is best illustrated in this reference photo below:
Notice the form shadow on the rock in the foreground center. It grades slowly from light to mid-tone to shadow, eventually becoming a cast shadow onto itself on the left side of the form, with a cast shadow’s characteristic hard edge. On the other hand, the large central rock above has a harder edge where it goes from light to shadow, due to the form itself taking a hard turn to a nearly 45-degree angle. They are both form shadows, but due to the individual characters of the rocks they are on, each has a different quality of edge. I could talk about this hillside all day, but you get where this is going! Just for fun, study the rest of the rocks in this photo and see what light and shadow relationships you come up with.
Let’s talk, one at a time, about the things that affect light.
Weather is variable. On a cloudy day for instance, the lighting effect will be more subtle, with lots of atmosphere, depending on how much moisture is in the air. All the aforementioned light characteristics are still there, but much more subtly because the light is cooler and much less intense.
Time of day will affect how the shadows look as well as the temperature of the light. These are all relationships that are better off observed and noted by the artist than by me just spouting off a few general formulas that sometimes cause more problems than they are worth!
Season, same thing, in some ways, with the added changes that take place in the foliage thus affecting their local color as well as the overall color harmony of the painting.
Moisture and dust particles in the air will have a large influence on the mood of your piece, and atmosphere is a compelling aspect of any painting when depicting light effects. The conditions that cause atmosphere in a scene are moisture, along with the amount of dust and other particles in the air, coupled with the distance of objects to the viewer. The way atmosphere is handled in a painting is by using every artistic tool at the artist’s disposal, namely, drawing, color, value, edges, and brushwork. The way this works is this — drawing could be as simple as reducing the size of objects to depict linear perspective. Also, strong diagonal lines, which would normally appear in the foreground, tend to compress and flatten out in the distance. As an example, this can readily be seen in the compression and flattening out of the linear trajectory of the bank of a river as it recedes into the distance. Using this drawing technique will greatly aid in rendering the feeling of atmosphere when coupled with these other tools.
Next comes color and value — lessening the saturation of a color along with making it lighter and cooler will almost always create a sense of atmosphere. Edges in the distance will also tend to merge and blur; the greater the atmosphere the greater these effects can be employed by using nuanced edges. Last but not least of the tools comes brushwork, which is one way to imply texture in a painting. The more atmospheric the day, the less textural effects are needed in the distance, so lightening up on the heavy brushwork in the background can go a long way in helping the atmosphere read in your painting.
The materials that make up an object will dictate to a large extent how the light affects them and how the artist paints them. A porous material or porous aggregate of materials such as grasses, sand, and dirt are going to look different in the light than a hard object such as a granite slab. Each has its own characteristic soft and hard edges, or more diffused light or highlights that indicates what they are. The speed of directional change within an object will also tell you how hard or soft to make an edge. A hard turn on a hard object will almost always call for a hard edge, except in the case of artistic selection, which can always overrule reality if it is done with wisdom! On the other hand, a gradual turn on a hard object will create a halftone edge that can give the artist an opportunity to punch up some color there.
Finally, local color will have its way with the color of the light. A shadow totally devoid of local color will not usually look right except in rare circumstances dealing with atmosphere.
I think this about sums up light for my purposes here. While not exhaustive in scope, my thoughts here are ever growing and influenced by study and observation. I’m always looking to add to my knowledge and love to bounce painting theory back and forth between myself and other great artists I know such as my good friends John Poon and Tom Howard. If you would like to add to the discussion, please do at the bottom of this article, and let’s add to the knowledge that’s out there just waiting to be plucked by all serious painters.
Here are several of the artists mentioned in this article and what they had to say about light and form.
The local color of a subject is affected by, amongst other things, the color of light that it is exposed to. In this example, the grass, which begins with a local color of green, bends toward yellow green under the influence of a warm sunlight, and then blue green in the shadows under the ever present influence of the cooler light of the sky. Note that in both cases we do not lose in its entirety the subject’s local color to the light; rather they both contribute as elements to the final outcome of color. So in practical terms, the green of the grass plus the yellow of the sun produces an outcome of yellow green grass. On the shadow side, the green of the grass plus the cooler blues of the skylight combine to create a variation on blue green. This same principle applies as readily to the other subjects of the scene, including the architecture and surrounding trees.
Light is one of several elements that the artist should learn and master. For me, it is often a tool for seeing patterns and textures in relationship to each other. Light is what helps us differentiate forms in a painting. Of course, and more basically, color or the color of light should be understood as value first and color second. It’s light against dark, and dark against light that helps tell one of the first or more important visual stories of a painting. But it’s color that ends up getting all the attention and all the credit. Many of us know that familiar refrain, “Ooooh, look at all those pretty colors!”
In my field sketch “Summer at the Forks,” a watercolor from the Manti Mountain Range of central Utah, I sought to couple the use of color with an understanding of value. In order to help that angular and very abstracted line of sagebrush to stand out against the trees behind, it was necessary to darken those tree elements. Of course in doing so, I was following the rules of planes and their consequent values, as spelled out by John F. Carlson. With trees being the most vertical elements of the scene, they are the darkest. Standard tree colors have given way to interpretation, using blues, greens, and violets. Thus color can be almost anything the artist wants, as long as the right value is in its proper place.
Kyle’s city scene breathes an evening light into the work that literally eats into the edges of buildings, giving a sense of its brightness and power. The light permeates the various objects that say “city” and culminates as a sort of halo that surrounds his center of interest, the cool, dark car. His skillful use of light creates a sense of place and time that lends great depth and charm to this work.
As Kyle pointed out in his demo, the brightest colors are usually found in the halftone areas. Even when an edge is soft, like two forms coming together in a shadow, you need to keep the shapes of the objects specific and not lose the form. And since form has a direct influence on light, this is good advice indeed!
Light — is it friend or foe? Light is necessary, of course. Without it we would be in total darkness. So, it is a gift beyond measure. But it can also be your enemy. There are many aspects to write about on the subject of light and painting, but I want to give a little glimpse of it being the villain from one perspective. I must be honest: Light is not the actual enemy. You’ve heard it said, “You are your worst enemy.” Well, it’s true in most cases, I would suggest. The sun is a constant source. It does not change. Other factors change, such as clouds, movement of the earth, or a tall person standing in the wrong spot. So, knowing how the sun’s light affects things “is on us,” you might say. We are to adjust to it because we know it won’t adjust to us.
I recently participated in the Plein Air for the Parks in the Grand Tetons. I get so excited when I paint a beautiful painting on location. I put it in a frame. Fill out the paperwork. Put it up on the panel and turn on the lights. WHAT?! Who stole my color? Who lowered my values?
Well, it’s not the sun’s fault. I’m the culprit! Over the years of doing plein air I have struggled to keep my painting in the shade. I will start in the shade, but it doesn’t take long before I turn or move to get the sunlight on my canvas. It’s a mental thing I suppose, but I need to see the colors more clearly. But if I’m not careful, I will pay for it in values and color. The sun is the most brilliant light that our paintings will ever be exposed to. As I have painted and experienced this rich exposure on my painting, there’s something that I have learned: They generally don’t make indoor lighting as brilliant as the sun. My paintings become dull and a little darker than what I see in the sunlight. I must learn to paint in a higher key and punch up my colors more. That’s not so easy. So, whether it’s the sun or the lighting in your studio, you must learn what wattage your paintings work best with. If you can’t adjust the wattage, you have to adjust your approach.
In this scene, which was a demo that I did for one of my painting classes several years ago, the light is what gives interest and sparkle to the piece. There is just enough of it there, coupled with the shadows, to say “late afternoon light.” Notice how the light on the pilings that start in the lower left corner gets brighter and more substantial as they approach the middle of the painting, thus helping to keep the eye there and directing it further up to the structures. All in all, this painting was less about detail than the feeling of light that it conveys.