Lighting Your Subjects

I have wanted to write about this topic for a while, as it is such an important and fundamental step that every representational artist has to face prior to beginning any drawing or painting.  As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, light, or rather the play of light and shadow can define, and illuminate sculptural form, but it plays two other very significant roles which often aren’t addressed.   Lighting can make or break a composition, and can be used to enhance an over-all feeling or mood within a work of art.  In this post, I’m going to discuss light by using examples of great masterpieces and touch briefly on how I use lighting in my own work, but first, I’d like to focus on four different types of lighting that commonly occur in old master paintings.

The first type of lighting display that I’d like to discuss has been used widely through-out the history of art particularly in portraits and figuritive work for obvious reasons.  I call it three-quarter lighting, but I’ve also heard it referred to as form lighting. The photo below shows how this looks on a simple sphere. I’ve positioned the light above and slightly to the left of the sphere at approximately a 45 degree angle. The result is an object that displays an area of light that is about two-thirds, to three-quarters as great as the shadow area.  The shadow edge (the area where the shadow and light separate) reflects the curvature of the sphere, providing a very clear description of the specific form of the object.  It is interesting to note in each of these lighting displays, how great the area of half-tone is as it moves towards or away from the high-light. Also, how sharp or soft is the high-light?  Is it a crisp pin-point or does it spread out gradually?

The second type of lighting I’d like to discuss is often used to accentuate the outer edges of form, creating a distinct boundary between the object and background.  This is clearly demonstrated in the photo below.  The light is positioned in front of the sphere illuminating the center.  The gradations within the light mass are very limited.  Only a very tight area of shadow can be seen around the lower contour edge.  I call this front lighting. This can be a tricky choice of lighting, as it tends to flatten out the appearance of form.  Graphic artists and fashion designers utilize this type of lighting because it allows them to display bold outlines and flat silhouettess.  One of the greatest draftsmen of all time, Jean AugusteDominique Ingres, used front lighting to emphasis the lyrical contours of the female form.  I will discuss his work in more depth later.

The third lighting display I’d like to discuss is side lighting.  This is one of the most dramatic types of lighting as it causes so much of the subject to become veiled by a dark mass of shadow.  High contrasts of light and dark in nearly equal portions are achieved with this type of lighting effect as seen in the photo below.  The term tenebrism is often used to describe this theatrical approach to lighting within a painting.

And finally, back lighting, which I consider to be the most difficult of all the lighting effects.  The challenge in this is that the shadows can’t be too dark, and the reflected lights within the shadow mass can’t be too light. If either one is exaggerated, the illusion of form will diminish.  With any type of back light, there has to be a certain degree of reflected light, (the ambient light that bounces off of other surfaces and reflects back into the shadows) therefore back lighting can’t display the same type of dramatic dark shadows that side lighting, or even three-quarter lighting can. To set a subject up with back lighting, there has to either be a secondary, less dominant light source in front of the object, or a reflective surface for the primary light source behind the object to bounce off of and get picked up again within the shadow mass. The key to representing the reflective light, is that it can’t be as strong as the main light source, which, in this case is limited to a tight ribbon around the outer edge of the form as seen on the upper left side of the sphere in the photo below. Notice that there is virtually no half-tone between the edge of the shadow and the light. Artist’s who use back lighting, have to understand the delicate gradations that occur within the shadow mass.  If you observe the value tone, you’ll notice that the polar opposite occurs within the shadow mass here, that occurs within the light mass of the front lit sphere above.

Before I go on, I should make it clear that these are only a few of the different types of lighting effects that can be utilized in a drawing or painting.  Often artist’s will use multiple light sources to achieve a desired effect.  Personally I try to simplify my lighting to one or two sources, as this allows me to most effectively observe form.  Artists who are more interested in emphasizing color over form benefit from using multiple light sources.  As a general rule, I try to limit my shadows to dark, flat shapes and explore the full range of luminous color within my lights. This allows me to make a very clear distinction between my light and shadow. Below are three of my most recent portraits, each utilizing a different type of lighting.

The portrait above was set up with the light source below and slightly to the left side of the model’s face.  The rest of the room was dark so that very little light would be reflected into the shadows. I wanted to create an image that was dramatic, almost theatrical as though she were on a stage, and spotlights were hitting her from below.  I also used cool bulbs to bring out more greens and bue-violets in her flesh tones in an effort to create a slightly eerie mood.

For this portrait, I used the more traditional three-quarter lighting.  The bulb was warm, bringing out the yellows and pinks of Emily’s flesh tones. The shadows are not as dark either, giving this portrait a warmer and less eerie feeling than the one above.

This is a detail of a portrait that I am currently working on.  The lighting in this is slightly frontal but also positioned above the model’s face at a 45 degree angle.  The result creates much softer, and less dramatic shadows than the other two portraits display. I wanted to capture youth and tenderness here, so I specifically chose a lighting effect that would not create harsh shadows. A warm bulb was also used here to bring out the warmer flesh tones. 

Now, finally, I would like to discuss these four different approaches to lighting within some of my favorite old master paintings. Lighting should be thought of as a compositional tool, creating a pleasant arrangement of value patterns which the eye can easily follow.  The artists that I am going to discuss understood this concept and made full use of it.  One cannot talk about composing a painting with light without mentioning Vermeer. Below is one of his many masterpieces.  Here he has chosen to use three-quarter lighting.  The horizontal and vertical lines of the picture frame draw the viewer’s eye towards the center of the canvas where they are held by the calm gaze of the woman. The patterns of light and shadow that fall over her delicate features are very simple yet extremely convincing in representing that basic oval shape of the skull.  The fact that the picture frame is so dark behind her also helps to emphasize the warm glow of light that seems to have a physical, honey-like density to it as it cascades over the folds of her cloak.  The placement of verticals and horizontals here and the specific lighting evoke an over-all feeling of calm-ness and tranquility.

Jan Vermeer “A Lady Writing” 1665?

The next painter I’d like to discuss is Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The painting below represents form in a much more crisp and linear way than Vermeer.  Ingres uses front lighting here to accentuate the curvacious contours of the woman’s figure. Ingres, who also played the violin, felt that music and art shared many similarities, and the variety and flow of contour lines, like well-played music notes, could express lyricism and harmony.  He was not concerned as much with visual truth here as he was with an ideal beauty. The rendering of form is very delicate, using a limited range of tonal values.  Most of the darker shadows happen around the edges of forms, which only help to emphasize the harmonious contour lines that, to him, defined true beauty.

Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres “The Source” 1856

Now, I’d like to discuss an artist who developed a style of painting that had such a tremendous following, that the term tenebrism (derived from the italian word tenebroso which means murky) is often used when describing his work or the work of his followers. The artist is Caravaggio and the example below clearly demonstrates just how far he was able to push the effects of dramatic light.  He often would set his figures in front of a dark background as seen here, which helps to draw the focus onto the illuminated faces.  It has been said that he would frequently build clay models of his figures and arrange them under different light sources to determine what would best work. It is important to note here, that he was a 16th century painter, so his light sources were candles – not terribly easy to control.  In this composition, it appears as though each figure was lit seperately.  The central figure is the most dramatically lit, his face receiving equal portions of light and shadow, which indicates a side lighting, but his garments and the table cloth have very little shadow on them, indicating more of a frontal light.  This proves that Caravaggio utilized more than one light source within a single painting, enabling him to create the specific light and dark patterns that he desired.

Caravaggio “Supper at Emmaus” 1600

The fourth and final painter that I’d like to focus on is William Adolphe Bouguereau.  He was a 19th century naturalist painter who was capable of portraying, with amazing virtuosity, the ever-challenging back lit figure. His figures in general are painted with such simplicity and ease, that they seem completely natural within their environment.  This can only be acieved by a thorough understanding of the subject, including the nature of light, and the painting below, The Birth of Venus, clearly demonstrates this.  Venus’ figure is limited to soft, pale, pastel-like colors, and all of of the tonal gradations are very subtle, except for the bright halo of light which catches the left side of her torso and trickles down her thigh, indicating a strong back light source. This type of lighting can be quite romantic, and, in this case, it suggests that the sun is just beginning to lower (behind a distant cliff perhaps) and deeper, cooler shadows are forming, but they aren’t very dark yet.   This is something that Bouguereau was definately concious of, as it helped him to soften the forms of his figures and eliminate sharp edges.  The end result, produces the opposite effect that a Caravaggio composition would have, where figures become almost fragmented by the extreme contrasts of light and shadow.

William Adolphe Bouguereau “The Birth of Venus” 1879

“The Birth of Venus” (detail)

Ok so, in closing, I hope that I have shown my devoted readers how significant of a role light can play within painting composition.  The artists that I have selected to write about are some of my personal favorites, but there are many others who utilized lighting in different ways.  I encourage you, the next time you study the work of a painter you admire, to think about what type of lighting he or she used, and why.

2 Responses to Lighting Your Subjects

  1. Lynne says:

    Thank you. This is very good, useful information that I shall apply to my own paintings (I’m a perennial beginner) and look for in the paintings of others, especially the masters.

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