July 2014, The Importance of Light

The President’s Palette July 2014

The Importance of Light
For realist painters, accurately depicted light is critically important to give a painting a sense of belonging in a particular location. The accurate depiction of light in a painting allows the observer to believe that the painting has depth. The problem for painters is that learning how to depict a sense of light flowing through a painting is difficult, and therefore sometimes ignored.

“If a picture doesn’t have light flowing through it, it looks weak. You can use pure color, splatter on the paint, outline everything in purple, but if you neglect the vibrancy of insightfully depicted light, the picture will only look superficially exciting. If you really analyze and communicate the way light flows across form, the picture will become resonant. The thing to remember is that you’re not really painting a green apple, you’re painting light hitting an apple.” Gregg Kreutz, in “Problem Solving for Oil Painters.”

It sounds dull and unromantic to sit and stare for hours at a fruit still life to gain understanding of how a single light source flows across an apple. Yet, painting fruit still life subjects is the historically classical method of teaching beginning painters. Light reveals objects and their many hues. It is somewhat fascinating to me to see how light strikes the form of an apple, for example, with the hue going from bright red to middle tone, and on into saturated shadow colors. From there, the light that reflects off of the apple carries some red with it to adjoining objects, changing their colors. In the end, the painting becomes a symphony of light and colors, none of which exist in isolation, but giving some of their respective color to all of the other objects in the painting. The result is a harmonious and exciting painting.

The noted landscape painter, Kevin MacPherson, takes a more practical approach to getting light and shadow into a painting by breaking all of the forms in a scene into light and shadow families. He does this at the beginning of a painting, assigning hues to each of the families. Kevin keeps his shapes simple and uses his assigned hues to fill in the shapes to check for composition. His basic advice is that the darkest hue in the light family must be lighter than the lightest hue in the shadow family. He does not allow them to ever overlap, because doing so creates visual confusion and a muddy looking painting.

It is the insightful depiction of light in a painting that allows the artist to convey the abstract idea behind the literal subjects in the painting. Light is used to guide viewers’ eyes to where the artist wants them to look. Through light and shadow, the artist is saying “Look at this—do not look over there.”

“A realistic painting that combines insightful accuracy with beauty fulfills one of our deepest hopes—that we live in a harmonious world.” Gregg Kreutz.

“And God said, ‘Let there by light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.” Genesis 1:3. I think that I will memorize and repeat this when laying out every painting so that I start with a good foundation.

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