Monday, 14 February 2011

Play with light and shadows

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – November 2010.

Light plays a crucial role. In the real world, you only see an object if there is some light on it. In a painting, it is the cement between the composition and colours and it commands to a large extent the key of a painting.

Sitting on the dock of the Bay - Oil on linen canvas (50 cm X 60 cm) by Benoit Philippe 

The same subject will look totally different depending on the time of the day and the season. Claude Monet exploited this to its full potential when he painted his series of haystacks or the Rouen cathedral at different times of the day. Mid-day light in summer will crush colours and draw hard edges. Morning light and light at the end of the day will give you long shadows as well as softer edges and colours. Morning light or light in late afternoon create more dramatic light effect and are often used by plein air painters.

From a composition standpoint, light and shadows add to the third dimension illusion. They model every object. Shadows give direction. If the sun is on your side, the projected shadows will give you horizontal strength, counter-balancing the perspective leading the eye towards the horizon.

Make sure you visit the spots you would like to paint at different times of the year. The position of the sun changes and you will find that some subjects become interesting because of the particular angle of the light at a definite period of the year.

Observation will teach you to take into account the three types of lights: Direct, indirect and reflected.

Shadows can be on the object itself or projected shadows. In both cases, the colour of the shadow will be influenced by the colour of the object itself as well as its surrounding. Shadows are neither totally black nor totally uniform. Observe the light in shadow areas. Light in a shadow can result from light bouncing back on the surface where the object is placed or light showing through the object itself if it is translucent. If there are more than one source to light (in general the case with artificial lighting), you will see multiple projected shadows. The surface where the shadows cross will be darker because each shadow is adding its own darkness to the mix.

Here are two suggestions to play with lights and shadows:

  • Try to vary the lighting conditions in your work. Working in the light for instance can give you wonderful effects: lighting the edge of the trees, and the top of people’s head and shoulders.

  • To better understand how light and shadows work, draw or paint a drapery. Take a white tea towel and create some waves, crease it, fold it… Place some objects under the fabric or let the fabric cascade from the back of a chair. It is important to use some white fabric. This exercise is about tones (lights and shadows), not colours.


lj said...

shades and light are my kryptonite.

You should be an art instructor.

Amanda said...

My name is Amanda White, and I would like to use your image, "Children at the River," to use as a visual aide in my classroom, to help them memorize a song that they are learning--"Where Go the Boats," set to the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson. In it, it says, "...other little children shall bring my boats ashore." Please let me know if I may use this image.

Thank you.

Amanda White
Willamette Girlchoir
Salem, OR US

Benoit Philippe said...


Yes, I am happy to let you use this image as a visual aid in your classroom. Thank you for asking.