How a Painting's Value and Color Are Influenced by Light

Updated on March 28, 2018
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Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

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 them.
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 them. | Source

Things That Influence a Picture's Appearance

1. The Effect of Light and Atmosphere

2. The Arrangement of Darks and Lights

3. The Harmony and Balance of Color

Colors and Values Define the Composition

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

  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.

Value and Color Are Defined by Light

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.

How Light Is Necessary to See and How 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.

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

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.

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

Quick Sketches to Use to Make Value Studies.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Value study made with black pen on paper.Quick value studies of famous paintings made with dual brush markers.Quick value study of famous paintings made with pencil on paper.
Value study made with black pen on paper.
Value study made with black pen on paper. | Source
Quick value studies of famous paintings made with dual brush markers.
Quick value studies of famous paintings made with dual brush markers. | Source
Quick value study of famous paintings made with pencil on paper.
Quick value study of famous paintings made with pencil on paper. | Source

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 contributes 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.

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.

"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. | Source

Four Types of Light Direction

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

The Haystack Series by Monet shows clearly how the light direction and color affect the subject.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Haystacks: Snow Effect (1891) by Claude MonetHaystacks in the late summer by Claude MonetHaystack, sunset
Haystacks: Snow Effect (1891) by Claude Monet
Haystacks: Snow Effect (1891) by Claude Monet | Source
Haystacks in the late summer by Claude Monet
Haystacks in the late summer by Claude Monet | Source
Haystack, sunset
Haystack, sunset | Source

How Different Light Conditions Change the Appearance

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 totally different arrangement of values and contrast. Think of how the long shadows and golden light created by the 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. In any case, don’t hesitate to try to change the light source to get the best possible visual effect for your subject, but be careful to be consistent when you do it.

How do you compose your subject?

How often do you use reference material from different sources to compose your paintings?

See results

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

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!

Questions & Answers

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