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How Light Affects Color and Value in Paintings

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

The appearance of a painting is influenced by the effect of light and atmosphere, the arrangement of darks and lights, and the harmony and balance of color. Light influences all of these factors.

The appearance of a painting is influenced by the effect of light and atmosphere, the arrangement of darks and lights, and the harmony and balance of color. Light influences all of these factors.

Color and Light in Art

We need light to see—without it, we would not see any object or landscape.

Once the subject is illuminated, what we see is influenced by:

  • The way the light hits forms, which creates a certain arrangement of darks and lights
  • The color and strength of the light, which influences how colors appear and how harmonious they look

Different Light Conditions Change the Appearance of Things

The look of a subject can change dramatically when illuminated from a different angle. What may look unexciting with a front light can become strikingly interesting with a side light that creates a different arrangement of values and contrast. Think of how the long shadows and golden light of the low afternoon sun create a dramatic appearance.

When working with artificial lights, you can create new effects by repositioning them, changing the angle, or turning some on or off. Don’t hesitate to try to change the light source to get the best possible visual effect for your subject.

How Is Color Affected by Light?

Colors look different when the light source changes. Depending on if you have sunlight, incandescent light, or fluorescent light, the same objects will look like they are different colors.

If the light is warm, everything that is illuminated will have a warm cast. To paint it, add some yellow or orange to the object's local color.

In cool light, everything will include a blueish shade. In many cases there are several sources of light at once; examine your subject closely and look for both direct light and reflected light.

Changes in Light Change the Value Structure

As we know, light enables us to see and recognize forms and shapes. When a form is hit by light, it either reflects or blocks it, producing certain configurations of dark and light shapes. By changing the way a subject is illuminated, you change its appearance and how value masses are distributed around the subject.

The color and the angle of light also strongly affect what you see. Changing light conditions make the same subject appear more or less interesting, shadow areas change, and with them, the dark masses translate visually into different compositions.

In the painting below, the shadow on the snow becomes one darker mass connecting with the bush.

"Spring is Around the Corner" by Robie Benve, oil on panel. The shadow on the snow becomes one darker mass with the bush.

"Spring is Around the Corner" by Robie Benve, oil on panel. The shadow on the snow becomes one darker mass with the bush.

The Effects of Direction, Color, and Strength of Light

When we see an interesting subject, one of the first things to consider is the type of light and its direction.

  • As the light changes direction, the appearance of a subject will change accordingly. The angle from which the light hits the masses determines what’s dark and what’s light.
  • The color of the light affects the hue the subject appears.
  • It’s also important to consider the strength of the light.

For best results, have one single source of light. If all of your shapes and colors are affected by the same light source, the design will be consistent. If you are composing a picture with parts from several reference photos, make sure the elements you add are illuminated by a compatible light source.

  • There are four main directions for light: from the front, from the side (with the options of left or right), from the back, and overhead.

Four Types of Light Direction

As the light changes direction, the appearance of a subject will change accordingly.

Type of LightEffects

Front Light

Produces a bright appearance of the subject, with minimal or no shadow. It can appear somehow flat in certain arrangements but provides a feeling of unity because the surface color has the same temperature and brightness.

Side Light

More dramatic, with high contrast between areas in light and shadow. Rich texture and strong color contrast create a feeling of vitality. The masses of darks in the shadow hold together, and details are lost.

Back Light

Back light creates a dark silhouette of the subject with a dramatic appearance in contrast with the light background. The major effect on masses is creating mostly dark areas with very little light. Most of the details in the dark mass are lost.

Overhead Light

Horizontal surfaces become very light, and verticals are darker. In nature, this is typically seen around noon on sunny days, or on overcast days, when the light is diffused and filtered downward.

Things to Keep in Mind While Painting

  • Start by creating an attractive arrangement of darks and lights.
  • Make a plan about what color combination you are going to use in order to create the mood you want.
  • Observe how the light influences the scene.
  • When rendering forms, shadows, and colors, keep them consistent with the direction and color of light.
  • Enjoy the process!

It is the relationship of value and intensity that is essential to using color well. If you master value and intensity, you will go a long way to expressing any mood you desire.

— Stephen Quiller

Colors and Values Define the Composition

When looking at a subject to paint, keep these two compositional building blocks in mind:

  1. Distribution of darks and lights (or values)
  2. Color harmony

Use them to your advantage to control the development of the painting. You may tweak both the color balance and/or the value structure to change how the picture appears. This is not always necessary, but if you do tweak things, remember that light conditions change light and color, and keep them consistent throughout the painting.

Color Harmony and Balance

Before beginning a painting, study the subject carefully to understand its color harmony and balance. The colors you use in a painting strongly affect the picture’s appearance and contribute greatly to the mood or feeling depicted. Some scenes may benefit from the artist adjusting tone and color to gain the desired harmony and balance.

If you slightly squint your eyes, you will see that at least 2 and possibly 3 values of color make up any object in the natural world. Practice creating entire paintings with no more than 3 values on any object. Paint a few of those and you'll discern a rhythm between areas of 1, 2 and 3 values. It's a fun game.

— Cristina Acosta

Value Structure

Value is how light or how dark a color is. The arrangement of darks and lights makes the basic foundation on which a painting is constructed. Every painting depends highly on the underlying value structure.

  • To see the basic dark and light arrangement of a scene, squint at it, looking with half-closed eyes. Color will tend to disappear, and the contrast in value will be more visible.

For a stronger compositional structure of a painting, keep light shapes and dark shapes grouped together to form big masses. If you see too many small shapes of different values, try squinting and focusing on simplifying what you see.

  • While squinting, observe how details blend in bigger shapes of similar value, those big shapes make the value structure.
  • Everything is either dark or light. Ask yourself: where does this belong to? When painting, adjust the paint colors accordingly to keep the grouping together.

The overall pattern of value shapes is the skeleton on which a painting is built. The eye needs this structure to create movement and excitement underneath the subject.

— Jane R. Hofstetter

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Robie Benve


Penny Leigh Sebring from Fort Collins on August 13, 2018:

Thank you! That is a wonderful explanation that I was able to share with my artistic teen daughter.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 25, 2018:

Thanks Nicole, it was great meeting you too and sharing that adventure on the snowy gondola ride! :) Thanks a lot for your nice comment. Looking forward to reading more of your writings.

Kitty Fields from Summerland on April 23, 2018:

I love your work, Robin! It was SO nice to meet you at the Convention! Thank you for sharing your eye for beauty with the world. :)