The artist may set up a still life without due thought to the lighting. Shadows being non-solid may be overlooked, and may appear to fall off one side of the canvas when painted. This may compel the artist to fade them out as though diffused by strip lighting. The artist may further forget that pale objects may appear dark if lit from behind, portraying instead the object’s local colour. Such treatment may result in a painting that lacks atmosphere. How can the artist make best use of the light in painting?
Poor use of Light in Painting
The Best Use of Light for Painting
Both paintings were completed alfresco on two identical consecutive afternoons. The painting above was completed facing north; the painting below was completed looking west. Notice how different the colours are for both. The pudding basin is white, yet in both paintings, different colour palettes were used. The apple is bright red in one picture, yet it is almost black in the other. The actual colour of the objects is known as the “local colour” and will not always agree with the eye actually sees.
When it comes to painting, it is best to ignore the local colour but to record the perceived colour: If the apple is red but appears to be violet, paint violet rather than red.
How to Paint Light
The same object may often require a different palette when lit in different ways. Objects lit from behind will often feature tonal contrasts and subdued hues; a setting lit from the front will feature more definite hues and less shadows. In the case of the paintings, one required, ultramarine, burnt umber and liberal amounts of white; the other, burnt sienna, viridian, permanent rose and moderate amounts of white.
Shift the objects around under a light source and see how the shadows change in colour, tone and intensity. The hues of the objects will appear to shift too. Look for definite hues in white objects and bright colours in black objects. Natural light, particularly sunlight will emphasise these effects.
Painting Light from Life
Shifting shadows create challenges for the artist wishing to capture their essence, but being transient, time is a factor. I often record the shape of the shadows quickly and then block them in. Making snap judgments in colour mixing is often required. Once the shadows have shifted, don’t be tempted to alter them accordingly, for this could mess up the painting. Ignore them and continue with the other subject matter.
Painting light is more about capturing many moments in time, as opposed to photographing one moment.