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Sunday, 10 May 2015





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Painting 101:

Effects of light in a painting

Let’s talk about the elements of a painting that are closely related to the basic light effects, the key of the picture, the character of edges, and the use of various washes.

The light determines the quality of the picture, the vibrancy of the colour and the contrast between values (the key of the picture).

Decisions have to be made before you paint, and certain decisions have to be made even before you start to set out outdoors to paint. For example, what kind of day is it? Where is the sun? Is it a rainy day, or is it misty?

The key of the picture

One of the major ways that light creates the mood in a painting is through the key. How, for example, will light and dark be distributed in a painting? Which will predominate? And how will the key relate to the character of the subject? The values in a picture affects the eyes in the same manner that musical notes affect the ears.

Key is one of the ways that light creates mood in a picture. Light also affects the edges of objects and these edges can, in themselves, be important expressive elements.

A hard edge suggests strength and attracts the viewer’s attention. When the sun hits the top most in a painting it emphasises the light area by bringing it sharply against a dark background.

Expression and exaggeration

We give expressiveness to a painting through the use of keys, edges and colour. They are important. Yet, most painters, including me are always in danger of the subject.

Ed Whitney - the well known artist, teacher and author said when you buy a coat, you look for the fit and not for the buttonholes. So don’t worry about the buttonholes instead, paint what you feel about nature.

Your feeling for a subject shows in your exaggerations. If, I were painting a boat race, for example, I would express my excitement by exaggerating the colour. And the exaggeration would work, as long as it is seen throughout the picture.


As we see nature’s colour is full of variety, how can we get that feeling into our painting? Anything to wary the wash and give it the look I believe suggests colours, atmosphere, and light. Better the expressive wash, than a mechanically perfect one. Light is the life of a painting. And to guarantee bright, luminous lights, the washes describing them should be lively bright, spontaneous and unworked.

Lighter, brighter, when working the first washes I usually paint the entire object (1) in light (2) moving from the light and

(3) turning from the light. Working in a series of washes also gives better control of colour. Study the painting titled ‘Sunny day’. It’s a village scene in open land.

The huge tree by the side of the hut with dark tones make the sunlit areas sparkle through contrast.

The composition presented by nature is excellent. Even the clouds are designed to lead the eye down to the mountains. I have introduced a bullock cart to bring depth, making it a more balanced picture. The scene has captured the glare of the warm sunshine in a village. In a painting the main focus is on light and how it affects the painting in colour, its effects on the atmosphere and pictorial space. One who expresses himself in the medium of water colour must know the object he needs to express, before the brush stroke touches the paper.

Landscape light

As you have just learned, nature is always changing and we, as painters, must observe and paint each colour and value carefully and accordingly.

The earth depends on the value and colour of the sky. A successful painting of nature’s vista depends on our knowledge of the role the sky plays in this spectacular drama. We must always be aware of the affect that light has on our painting. An oil painter places his warm light colour on the canvas and then mixes very carefully the cool light of the atmosphere.

This colour must match the value of the light colour and should be painted in such a way as not to mix these two colours, laying one gingerly over the other.

For the watercolour painter it is different because we must keep the light colour a lighter value so as to make the second wash look green. We are working with a transparent medium.

I do not work in the same manner in every painting but always, no matter the procedure, I think of this light as one of the most important elements of each painting. When we see the light through the atmosphere, when we see light or warms and cools working together on local colour, this is called vibration. We may break up the colour, never the value.

Not doing this, we would not be able to truly paint the landscape. The arching light of the sky on each particular day has a colour of its own and we must always observe this and add it throughout our painting.


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