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Learning About Lighting

Let's talk about lighting! It can tell the viewer time of day, change mood, and it can make or break a painting. To convey realistic lighting you must use both value and color to your advantage. If you want to get better at replicating lighting effects, the first step is understanding. Really take time to observe different lighting conditions. A perk of being a theatrical scenic design/paint major in college is that I had to take a lighting design class to graduate. One of our first projects was lighting observations, which required observing light at all times of day, taking photos, and also looking at the works of a number of artists. All of that time spent looking was a great building block to being able to recreate realistic lighting, whether on stage or in a painting. Here are five examples I've done of the Brooklyn Bridge, with brief explanations for how I made my choices! I only used a real photo reference for one, the rest I did knowing how lighting looks at different times of day on the bridge.

This first one is meant to be sunrise, when the city gets bathed in pink light. You will notice there is a shadow of nearby buildings cast on the ground and the bridge; the sun hasn't cleared them yet. I also chose to keep the light more pink towards the shadow. The sky is light not only because at that time of day it wouldn't be very blue yet, but also because I didn't want to pull focus. Make the sky too dark and the bridge wouldn't have stood out. You will notice in this series my general rule is keep the sky a little lighter. This isn't true across all my work, for example if I'm painting a light subject that I want to stand out I will deepen the sky, but it's always something to keep in mind as you are painting! I also wanted the bridge's orange and pink be the most saturate/highest chroma thing on the page, and had I increased the sky's chroma, that wouldn't have been the case.

This second sketch depicts midday (and the only one with a true photo reference I used to paint it). I lightened the bridge more than the photo just to intensify the feeling of light hitting it. I wanted to make sure to keep the contrast in mind, so I thought a lot about the edges that touch each other and what needed to be lighter or darker to achieve the level of contrast I wanted. The sky is kept a little darker on the light side of the bridge (though the light side of the bridge is still darker than the sky) and lighter on the right side of the sketch to keep a higher contrast between the sky and the right side of the bridge.

This sunset/golden hour bridge is backlit. The side of the arches we see is technically in shade, not being hit by direct light, but it still glows in comparison to the shade on the back of the bridge because of the reflected light hitting it. The side of the arches we can't see is being hit by a lot of light, which bounces off and hits the side we can see. I used Daniel Smith Quinacridone Deep Gold and Quinacridone Coral to achieve the glowy color in this, as well as in the color on the bridge in the first sunrise sketch.

This is how the bridge really looks at night. It isn't lit, so has a moody look. I lightened the sky so the bridge stands out more, and added a bit of a warm glow (thanks, Quinacridone Coral!) coming from the roadway (seen on the archways) to account for the cars. I could have added more lit windows to the buildings in the lower left, but I didn't want to draw focus there. Since that isn't the subject of the painting, I didn't want the lightest area (and area with the biggest contrast) to be those buildings; I wanted to keep eyes on the bridge itself. The eye is naturally drawn to the area of greatest contrast, so when finding your focus that's something to keep in mind.

This last one is a complete fabrication. They don't light the bridge at night (but shouldn't they!?). If they were to put some architectural lighting on the bridge, I imagine it would look something like this: lit from multiple sources so no major cast shadows, but lit from below so the undersides of arches and details are catching more light, while upward facing details (that usually catch more daylight) would be in shadow. Note the underside of the arches are lit up. To give the bridge a little glow, when painting the sky around it I used pinks and warm colors touching the structure, blended out to dark which adds more atmosphere than just a flat sky.

I hope this helps shed some light (ha!) on how to replicate lighting effects in your own work! Highly recommend checking out James Gurney's book Color and Light if this is a topic that interests you!




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