Thoughts on Light Sources and Lighting in Art

This post is all about light and my struggles with it – I want to give my thoughts on lighting for a studio/workspace, but also a bit on lighting within a painting itself. In the past, I might have considered writing separate posts about these topics, dedicating one to a discussion of depicting light sources and another for actual physical room lighting. But I’ve decided my best path towards catching up with my writing backlog is to combine logical groups of paintings and topics. I have about 25 finished paintings that I’ve yet to share here, and that list grows every weekend. It’s a good problem to have, enjoying something so much that you want to do it all the time. But I would like to try to catch up, so I’m actually going to batch a chunk of them that are loosely related to lighting into this post. I happened to be thinking a lot about lighting during this time period, so it sort of works.

I’ll start with the room/studio lighting side of things – how I currently light my paintings while I’m working on them. The room I call my art studio is actually also my kids’ playroom. My kids both love to draw and do crafts, and one of my favorite things is when we’re all in there working on some art related project together. Although it does have some decent windows, the lighting isn’t great. I’ve tried to supplement the natural and overhead lights with other solutions like a photography box light/softbox, which has helped a bit. But I can tell from my painting videos that I still need something more. I’ve heard that natural light from north-facing windows is the best thing for painting, but I can’t exactly pick my house up and turn it around 180 degrees. So, in absence of that, I would like to try an “over the easel” light that I’ve seen others recommend.

My painting set up, with a camera arm and big light.

I think one of the toughest aspects of trying to improve my lighting is that I don’t want it to interfere with my painting space or with my family joining me in the room. If the lights are so bright that no one wants to be up there, that kind of derails the entire thing for me. And if I can’t reach my painting surface because too many lights are in the way, that doesn’t help either. I think this dual light/overhead easel clipping thing might be my best bet. I’ll admit, my current rigged solution has helped things compared to how I started though. There are some videos I’ve shared with really poorly (or inconsistently) lit surfaces, so at least I’m slowly improving on that end.

Another aspect to this conversation on lighting is the light within artwork and how you visualize it. Again, this is sort of a different topic, but for the paintings I’m sharing here, it was heavily on my mind at the time. These thoughts started churning quite by coincidence, as such things usually happen. As I painted a portrait of a random smiling guy, I decided to try to simulate bright sunlight, perhaps coming into an office building or something. I realized as I tried to implement this impulsive idea that light sources really aren’t a strong point for me. Sure, I have some experience with the basics – which side of the face light versus shadow falls. But light can obviously get much more complex than that.

For example, one major complication (and difference between myself and experts) is how light reflections are depicted. It’s not just the contrast differences, but also how the light and room add additional color values to everything else. For example, what would a red light in a green room do to the colors in a subject’s face? Honestly, most often I don’t account for that much at all. But I know that I need to – it’s a specific area that has to be improved upon if I want to keep growing. So, that became a focal point over the next few portrait studies I did. I tried various lighting situations, including one of direct candlelight and a brightly colored room. I’ll share the paintings below in a slideshow, then talk about each.

Now, I’ll talk a bit about each one of these. The first chronologically was the smiling sunset guy. On this one, I was really just kind of messing around for the most part. I wanted to paint, but didn’t want to focus too much. I can see that mentality in the end result, as I really didn’t put any effort towards blending. The brush strokes are really prevalent, which is an interesting but unfinished look. Towards the end, I started messing around with the background and wanting to put some bright sunlight behind him. This is what triggered me to start thinking more about light, as I pondered how I could improve on this.

With that in mind, I decided to push myself with a really extreme light example. How about a candle right in front of someone’s face? Plus an added bonus of a vividly colored room for some additional reflections to play around with. So a green room, bright candle, and woman with red hair became the challenge. I was so enthusiastic about this one that I completely forgot to record most of it! So I didn’t have much available in the way of progression to show. The result turned out okay in terms of what I was trying to practice – the light itself. But in my excitement, I really didn’t plan it well, and ended up running out of space completely. So the end result isn’t exactly what I wanted in an overall painting sense.

Next, I thought I’d see if I could get some softer natural light going. This was mostly not a success, because I ended up with just a regular painting. In fact, looking at this portrait of a woman in the woods now, I’m pretty unsatisfied with it. In the 25 paintings since these, I have completely stopped using any blacks, and now looking at my older paintings those instances really jump out at me. I’ve seen some painters on YouTube use Ivory Black here and there, but their skill levels are vastly beyond mine…my application of black in this particular painting is pretty jarring on the subject’s mouth. I really like the various brown/blue blends that I’m using now. Getting back to the light discussion, this painting really didn’t show anything on that topic as I wanted it to.

The last painting in the series was another that didn’t achieve its objectives. This guy in a hoodie is mostly fine overall, but the experiment in light was supposed to be about shadows, particularly from the sweater’s hood. It didn’t happen at all though. Not at all trying to beat myself up here, but I really think at this stage in the game, I lacked the skill and experience to show what I wanted. Although I still probably don’t have that capability, I think now I could do a better job on this one. In fact, I just completed a portrait that does a much better job of depicting shadows.

So, that’s it for this one on the topic of light. As I said above, I’ve got 25 more paintings I need to share on the blog, but I have no clue at this point how to appropriately batch them into groups. Maybe I’ll have to ditch the “logical groupings” thing at some point if I truly want to catch up. Another thing for me to consider; I’ve been making a big short form, vertical video push lately. Basically, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts, so I should probably start embedded those too. So I need to ponder the best way to arrange that here on the website. More soon, hopefully!

Leave a Reply