Tuesday, 6 August 2013


Seeing the light.  Hmm - lots of hidden meanings, and some not so hidden really!

I often visit WetCanvas, the website for artists.  And I look at the work of the artists who contribute, often showing their work in progress for comment and criticism, sometimes just showing finished pieces.

One of the things I have noticed recently is that many of the contributors work from photos - which I discussed in my last post - and they often choose, frankly, quite dull images to work from.

That is, I believe, because they are concentrating more on the subject matter than any other consideration.  A street scene with people;  a landscape with a stream;  a field of hay bales;  fruit on a table.  The people in the street might well be quite interesting; a stream is often visually beautiful, hay bales are fascinating almost-natural sculptures in a rural environment; fruit always appeals.

But how often is the LIGHT taken into account? I have regularly seen flashlight used for portraits. flattening the form with its blandness.   Landscape photos taken at midday, when the sun is at its highest and least interesting.  Still life photographed on a table with no directional light at all.

Yet - using the magic of light to add atmosphere to a scene, no matter what the scene might be, is SUCH a powerful tool.  That is not to say that a dull, overcast day is not beautiful - a clever artist will be able to make use of lack of sunlight - look at this Ken Howard image, he once told me that he just loves overcast days since they give him a chance to use beautiful greys:

and other muted yet rich tones:


Take a look at this portrait photo.  Such a pretty girl, I am sure her family would be thrilled with a portrait which captures her likeness:

But is this an "inspiring" photo?  Exciting visually?  She has been plonked in front of a pink something - curtain?  blanket?  Oh, I see, it matches the flowers on her t shirt.......

What about this image?

I agree, he is not as pretty..................but how interestingly the side of his head disappears into the dark tone behind;  and although we cannot see what is happening to that side of his face, does it matter, can he still be recognised?  I think so.

You may not know this guy either, but just take a look at the LIGHT in this image by artist Alicia Sotherland:

This picture is fascinating on various levels - the technique, the way the figure melds with the background, and the beautiful cool light on the head.

A couple more from WetCanvas photographers.....What about this image?  Interesting?

You may be very fond of painting eggs, but hasn't this been lit in the most boring fashion? the light is directly overhead, throwing shadows which are not at all interesting.

Now this one is FAR more exciting visually, to my eye:

You may feel it is a bit TOO dark in places...but this photographer also took a slightly lighter image which helps to see what is happening a little better...and at least the darker tones help to "knit" the objects together with their surroundings.

So - I just want to encourage you to think NOT ONLY about your subject, but also about the light on your subject, and whether it adds something special and interesting.  It most certainly can do.....the choice is yours.  The important thing is not to take it for granted, or ignore it all together.  Light is an important part of your subject, almost as important as the "thing" or "things" you have chosen to paint, be it eggs, trees, a lake,  your cat - whatever.

I love to paint the light. particularly sunlight. Having said that, let me say that good light in a picture doesn't have to be sunshine - more subtle light can also work well.  Here you go - I was asked to paint the cupcakes, it was a demo;  it would have been nicer with three of them....but the light made it fun:


  1. Thank you Jackie for a fascinating and thought provoking post. I will be putting this into practice in all my future art work.

  2. Much appreciated concept lesson! A new light bulb as gone on over my head. I hope I can learn to implement it in my art.

  3. Good one, as always, Jackie! I work both plein air and from my own photos. Many times the photos are rather bland as you mention. But, I am always looking for ways to add light from my own experiences... rather difficult sometimes. And I can get into trouble trying to do this. One must remember to make the light consistent when "creating" it. But, usually, I have a few photos and not just one that I work from. And, I have a plein air piece or two sitting around to refer to also. This is a good lesson for artists. Thanks.

  4. THANKS FOR THE COMMENTS, most appreciated. I always hope to find something useful to write about! Makes it worthwhile when people comment like this.

  5. Great one, Jackie! One of my "pet peeves" actually. Most free image resources have really boring light. And I've seen countless portraits painted from flash photos just like the one of the utterly adorable little girl. Unless the artist is very experienced and can invent better light, that is an "impossible" photo, also because the face is seen straight on.

    Light is everything! It is what 'sculpts' whatever is in front of our eyes. We can work with value shifts, gradations, and we can work with hue shifts, to 'sculpt' an illusion of three dimensions on canvas/paper, and the job becomes so much easier when there are good references.

    Some prep work on ref photos can be done in Photoshop Elements, Gimp, and the likes. In cloudy-day pictures, contrast can be increased, and the burn and dodge tools can be used to really bring out 3D. As Marsha says above, it is very important to make the light consistent. Also its colour. When working from several references, it is important to choose them so that the light is consistent.

    OK, I'll step of the 'fanatic's soapbox'...

    So glad you brought this up, as it is so important. A bad ref will result in a boring painting unless one learns how to 'spice it up'. Or have the wisdom to choose good refs.

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  7. The "Anonymous" response, which was extremely rude, has been deleted, but I would just like to say one thing. This person has hidden behind anonymity. Which is cowardly. If you have something to say to me, why not just have a dialogue with me - itis easy enough to do! And if you do not like what I write, and how I write it, there is no need to read my blog. Do not tell me that I am "usually" scornful of my readers ..this is nonsense, as proven by the comments above. In a blog, people voice their opinions and thoughts. I cannot please all of the people all of the time, but I do try to say things which are thought-provoking sometimes, helpful sometimes, useful sometimes. I have no time for internet trolls with little minds who decide to remain "anonymous" while being unpleasant.

  8. I posted a free story once on my blog and got a lengthy flaming response criticizing it in the extreme. Anonymous of course. It was terrifying. This was on LiveJournal so I was able to report it and get the flamer blocked by IP.

    I thought it was the previous photos post that had been commented on. I read both of these and enjoyed them. They reminded me of learning to change the lighting on a photo because tourists would give me their spouses' driver's license to paint from while they took the subject to lunch so that the painting would be a surprise. Most of them never realized the trick was an advanced one, but they liked the paintings.

    You don't seem scornful of your readers or of less advanced artists to me. I like your writing style and have read your blog for a long time. The only up side of my experience with a flaming 'critique' on my blog was the enormous long support thread it generated from my regular readers and dear friends. I hope more of your friends come out in support of you.

    Feel free to PM me the actual offensive response. I can dissect it and tear it apart in detail for you if you want.


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