Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Achieve a Luminous Effect in a Painting through Color and Value?


Johannes Vermeer

“How do you achieve a luminous effect in a painting through color and value?”

To create luminosity in a painting, it’s all a matter of achieving a convincing lighting situation that is consistent and cohesive. Lighting can be tremendously effective in terms of organizing a scene, bringing definition to objects and figures, and can also generate an emotional mood to a painting.

There are basically two kinds of lighting that one has to understand in order to figure out how to utilize light successfully in a painting:  natural light and artificial light. Once you understand what makes each kind of lighting unique, you can emphasize these characteristics in your own paintings depending on the kind of effect you’re looking to achieve. 

Natural light is characterized by a subtle, low contrast look that is distinguished by soft shadows that dissolve slowly and gradually. The mood evoked by natural light is usually calm, quiet, and tranquil. In terms of color, natural light creates cool passages of light with warm colored shadows.

Probably the quintessential painter of natural light was Johannes Vermeer, who used natural lighting from a window on the left hand side of his paintings to permeate his beautiful domestic scenes. Observe below the softness of the shadows  that are casting on the wall, in addition to the light, subtle shadows on the face of the woman.

Jan Vermeer Paintings 8

Johannes Vermeer

Artificial light is essentially everything that natural light is not; it is dramatic, high in contrast, with a bold, theatrical look.  The cast shadows created by artificial light are harsh and graphic.  The areas of direct light are incredibly intense and bright and the shadows are deep and rich. The mood can frequently be ominous and foreboding with artificial light.

Georges de La Tour is an excellent painter to look at for artificial light.  In the majority of his paintings, he focuses on a single candle to light a narrative scene.  The domestic subject matter is similar to Vermeer’s paintings, but as you can see the visual results could not be more different due to the lighting situation. The colors are reversed with artificial light:  the areas of direct light will appear to have warm colors while the shadows will have cool colors.


Georges de La Tour

Once you’ve figured out whether you are using artificial light or natural light, it’s important to keep your lighting very consistent throughout the entire painting, so that the light affects every object appropriately.

I recommend limiting your painting to a single light source, as this creates a sense of focus and unites the painting through the light. The most common mistake I see is people using multiple light sources that interfere with each other, making the lighting confusing and difficult to follow.  This video tutorial below demonstrates how to create a lighting situation with a single light source when drawing a self-portrait from life.



Always control as much of your lighting situation as possible, take the initiative and time to set up the lighting right. I usually spend a good hour or so figuring out how I want to light my subject matter.  The decisions I make with lighting are never arbitrary, and I take them very seriously.  Poor lighting can easily ruin what would otherwise be a good set up.

If you are painting from direct observation and using natural light, you have to use north light, which will stay consistent throughout the day. (south light creates shadows that move every 10 minutes) If you’re using artificial lighting, stay away from fluorescent lights, since they tend to flatten all of the forms. Artificial spotlights that aim the light in one specific direction are much easier to control and can create dramatic effects. This video tutorial on oil painting demonstrates how to paint a still life lit by natural light. (this is part 2 of a two part oil painting tutorial) is a free website for learning visual arts which features video tutorials, art critiques, and more.

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