Light & Shadow in Portrait Painting

This video explains how lighting can be used in paintings to show form in a portrait.

6 min. video

You’ll see how to break down the specifics of light and shadow: direct light, reflected light, shadow core, types of shadows, how light effects color.

Lighting can establish a mood or narrative for a painting, and more. Lecture by Art Prof Clara Lieu.

Figure Drawing: Soft Pastel

Video Walkthrough

  • Lighting is important not just for the visual effects, but especially for establishing mood.
  • Lighting can dramatically change the mood for a scene, anything from romantic, scary, to happy.
  • Candle light can be very beautiful and intimate, as seen in Georges de la Tour‘s paintings.
  • Light in a painting is effective if you can figure out which direction the light is coming from.
  • The key to painting light is consistency, the highlights and shadows all have to be doing the same thing.
  • Usually 1 light source is the most effective as it is concentrated in a specific part of the scene.
  • Multiple light sources can be really tough to deal with, often the light sources will “cancel” each other out and can make a portrait look very flat!
  • It is possible to have a portrait with 2 light sources, usually there has to be a very strong shadow core, and it helps if the 2 highlights are very different from each other.
  • Ask whether you want the light source (a lamp, a window) to be in your painting, often it can play a role in the narrative!
  • Caravaggio‘s Calling of St. Matthew is a great example where the light is part of the narrative.
  • Lighting your portrait from above can often result in “raccoon eyes” which can provide a very dramatic result.
  • Fluorescent light usually has a very sterile, cool quality and often makes forms appear very flat.
  • Daylight is usually very bright with high contrast highlights and shadows.
  • Cast shadows are often very graphic, crisp, and flat.
  • Cast shadows follow the forms that they fall on.
  • Reflected light can be hard to see, you really have to search for it!
  • Edward Hopper‘s paintings show very simple, clear cast shadows that are great to observe.
  • Natural light usually has cool highlights and warm shadows.
  • Artificial light is the opposite: it has warm highlights with cool shadows.
  • Take the initiative to set up your own lighting situations!
  • You can control the type of light, the position of the light, the ratio of highlights to shadows, and more.

Prof Lieu’s Tips

Clara cartoon

The way I look at portraits (or any artwork for that matter) is I ask myself when I’m looking at the portrait, is there anything that is sticking out to me?

Drawing a Male Portrait in Soft Pastel, Clara Lieu
Drawing a Male Torso & Portrait

Does that part get in the way of me appreciating the other parts, and/or the intention behind the piece?

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