Lights and Darks

By Sharon Brown (Sharon) on March 19, 2010

Contrasts are important in art, no matter the medium used. The play of light on a dark subject can be dramatic. Capturing that light/dark contrast is often a dramatic effort too. Let's take a look.

We see sunshine, we love it, but can we paint it? Take a look at a ray of light as it lands on a dark surface. The surface either absorbs the light or it reflects it. We know it's a dark green leaf, but when the sun hits it, the change in the dark green is dramatic. 

It's important that we emphasize the contrast, and to do that we might have to lose the green that we know is there. Funny thing about painting, we really are in control whether we think so or not. We know the leaf is green, our mind tells us it is, but our eye tells us that the sun is reflecting white, not green. So to paint what we see is one thing, and painting what we know to be true is another. Let's go with what we see. 

Draw your plant, details don't matter at this point because this will be a layered painting. The shapes do matter, so look closely at the plant in front of you. 

Look at what you see in the background. Details there don't matter much either, because the subject of the painting is the plant. But the background will either be dark or lig2010-03-19/Sharran/aa3d41ht and that is important. The first step is to take care of that background. You might want to simply brush in areas of the colors you see, no details, just areas of color. 

Now look at the darkest foliage. It's probably the foliage that's hidden from the sunlight, so begin to paint in that dark hidden area, and concentrate on it as you layer in your darker colors. Blend as you go, because on every leaf, there are many, many shades of color. I like to use a drier brush when painting in this way, and with smaller amounts of paint on my brush. So now you finish your dark areas. 

It's time to lighten up. The sunlight might be blindingly white in some areas, and minty green in others. It's up to you to 'see' the subtle differences. If one leaf is on top of, or shading another, then notice that, and add the shades you really see, allowing the sun to work its magic on those leaves that are directly in its path.

The last thing you'll do on a painting using this method, is to add the details with a light hand and a small brush. Look for color variances. There might be browns or reds that you missed the first time around. But be very observant, because these color changes might make all the difference. 

The painting I'm showing you here was done by a student of mine some time ago. I thought she did a great job with contrast. 

Try it. You'll do a great job, too.

No part of this article can be reproduced without the author's permission.

Related articles:
art, contrast in painting, lights and darks, painting, paintings, shadows

About Sharon Brown
Sharon is a retired art and humanities teacher. She is also a writer and has a deep love for gardening. She has written a series of articles about the history and medicinal value of Kentucky wildflowers, and they tell of growing up in the mountains of southeast Kentucky with her Aunt Bett. She currently lives in western KY.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Thanks for the art lesson LarryR Apr 21, 2010 11:53 PM 8
O.k. Starting my Abstract Ridesredmule Mar 31, 2010 6:56 AM 2
Untitled irisarian Mar 19, 2010 10:18 AM 1

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