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Identifying Lights and Darks in your Paintings

October 27, 2010

In response to a question from Delhi, here is a break down on how to identify the shadows and highlights in your paintings (or drawings).


Using the reference from my underpainting tutorial, I will demonstrate where the light and dark areas are. Here, I have blurred the picture slightly to simulate squinting your eyes. Squinting your eyes  is a great way to eliminate a lot of distracting details and really focus on the large shapes.


When I look for lights and darks, I’m not looking at the objects in my composition. I’m looking for the values. Here you can see that I’ve outlined all of the shadow shapes in blue. I’ve outlined the shadows area of the cup as part of the background, because they are the same value. Value, lightness or darkness, has nothing to do with hue or colour.

By squinting my eyes, these are the areas that stand out as being the darkest.


Here I have outlined the highlights in orange. The highlights are any area of the composition that are pure white. This is where the light hits the objects directly. When I squint, the highlights are the areas that are much lighter than the rest of the picture.

You will also notice that I’ve circled the folds in the fabric. Although my reference doesn’t show this as a highlight, when I paint, I will include it as one. This is an example of the kind of artistic licence that lets you make changes to what you are painting. The fabric just happens to be a type that doesn’t reflect light, but it would benefit the overall composition to have some highlights in the bottom portion of the frame. If the fabric was shinier, this is where the highlights would occur.

Everything between the highlights and shadows are varying shades. The keyword there is varying. It’s not enough to have highlights, shadows, and one value in the middle. You need to create light mid tones and dark mid tones and provide a transition from the lights to the darks.

To further simplify things, you can convert your reference to grayscale. This eliminates the colour factor, which can be misleading when trying to identify shadows and highlights. Obviously this isn’t always an option, so don’t rely on it too much, but it’s a great way to begin to understand values.


As a bit of an aside, this is also a good test for your paintings. To figure out if your paintings have enough contrast (range of values), convert it to grayscale and compare with a gray scale image of your reference. You will quickly be able to see where you painting needs to be darker or lighter.


From → Drawing, Painting

One Comment
  1. Hi there,
    Am really enjoying following your Tweets and checking out your website. Thanks for sharing what you know! Every little bit helps!

    Happy Painting!

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