Importance of Light in Art


Importance of Light in Art

Have you wondered how artists use light to create realistic paintings?

In this article we will be discussing the importance of light in art, how it affects our perception of dimensionality and texture, and how we can effectively light up a painting.

Some art movements such as impressionism, were particularly focused on depicting light as a subject. The artworks that emerged from this genre could almost be considered as paintings of light itself. There are even artists that use light as a medium itself such as Olafur Eliasson or the neon and performance artist Bruce Nauman. Light and art have always worked hand in hand. Let’s see how light is used to create realistic paintings in art. 

Why is lighting so important in art ?

You have to study light to create a realistic painting.
In fine art, the notion of aesthetics is fundamental. In order to represent elements at their best, the lighting has to be perfect. Fine art from the 19th century was essentially focused on realistic depictions and figurative subjects. These artists had to observe real light settings in order to reproduce light’s effects on the subject they wanted to represent. 

The illusion of light in art can be created many different ways. For instance in watercolor the illusion of light isn’t created by the addition of pigment but by the blankness of the paper. The translucent quality of the colors are brought by the water.

William Blake, Red Dragon, via Wikipedia.

 In William Blake’s watercolor, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, the rendition of the muscles of the beast is very precise as it replicates a real observation and study of human and animal anatomy. By placing the illuminated woman in the background, the painting also seems to have more depth. 

You need good light in order to create a good composition. 
Good lighting isn’t just about the intensity of the lighting, but about it’s direction and effect on the elements of the artwork. A good composition depends on how the light enhances each of these elements, and how that affects the way we perceive them. The outer lining of these elements matter in terms of aesthetics, but it is light that will bring it’s final form.

Exploring Dynamic Composition

In l’apparition of Gustave Moreau, the dynamic composition is created by a diagonal ligne starting from the corner on the left to the upper right corner. In the middle of that line floats the luminescent head of Saint John the Baptist. 

The halo effect surrounding the head emphasizes the structure of the composition. This is also a good example of how light can be used symbolically to represent the notion of divinity.

How lighting helps to visualize dimensionality ?
Light enables you to see objects in three dimensions in real life, but also creates the impression of three dimensionnal objects on two dimensionnal surfaces. Light in art creates the illusion of depth. 

Gustave Moreau, L’apparition, 1876. Oil painting,  69.8 x 60.2 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. via Wikipedia.


In Young girl wearing a turban holding a candle, the face of the character in the middle is light up from underneath. In this painting, the painter used the chiaroscuro technique to create a dramatic effect. He made very high contrast between the darkness in which the character is plunged, and the light of candle that she is hiding.This shows the great importance of light in art. 

This kind of lighting puts an emphasis on the softness and ovalness of the child’s features. The painting is structured in two major spheres. This kind of shape is perfect in order didentify the variation of volume. This is why we often use orange or apples to study the light source in drawing. 

An object only seems to have dimension because of the way it reflects light. There are many different values of shadows on an object. An object is never lit evenly ; there is always a side that receives more light than the other.  In a black and white photography these values are easy to distinguish; they go from white, to gray, to black. 

Jawlensky, Portrait of the dancer Aleksander Sakharov, 1909. Oil painting, 69.5 × 66.5cm, Munich, Lenbachhaus.

Sometimes this dimensionality is only suggested by medium contrast or soft shadows. For example in the following portrait of Aleksander Sakharov, there is a bold contrast brought by the colors but not that much from the values of shade.

The shadows surrounding the eyes creates a piercing gaze and is a key element of the painting. The shadow on the right of the silhouette separates the figure from the background which creates more depth to the character. 

What do artists use to show texture ? 

There are two kinds of texture in art : physical texture and visual texture. Physical texture is the feeling you have when you actually touch an artwork.  Visual texture is the illusion of that physical feel that’s created through the use of different mediums.

This tactile quality can be expressed through many different mediums and techniques. 

The illusion of matter

Max Ernst, Flower shell, 1956. Oil painting, 40x30cm.  Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain

For example, Ernst used the grattage technique to achieve this seashell texture in Flower shell. He did a series of these shell flowers, using this same technique. 

This technique consists in scraping paint, using different kinds of objects such as a palette knife. Removing paint this way leaves a residue of paint and creates random patterns. 

The notion of randomness was at the heart of surrealism, in which Ernst produced many artworks. Ernst used other texture techniques including frottage and decalcomania.

There can be a lot of texture even on two dimensional objects such as paintings.The texture of paint is never completely even. Paint can be applied with more or less thickness, and that changes the texture of the artwork. For example, Francis Bacon is famous for using very thick layers of paint in his monochrome backgrounds. 

Francis Bacon, Study for portrait, 1977. Oil painting and dry transfer lettering, 198.2 x 147.7 cm,   DACS, London

This opacity suggests a confined space, and creates uncertain architectures. As we can see in Study for a portrait, He uses very contrasting textures in his paintings to emphasize the contortions of the flesh. He mixes large blurred elements with explosive and colorful details. 

These different textures are simply obtained by the different kinds of application of the paint.

As his portraits lie between figuration and abstraction ; the direction of light is usually unrealistic.

The illusion of transparency

For instance in oil painting, you can add pure pigment or on the contrary use very diluted pigment. When the pigment is very diluted in oil, it creates a specific texture called the glaze. 

This glaze creates a whole new dimension to the painting. 

This very thin coat of paint can create the illusion of transparency, as we can see in the painting le Buveur d’Absinthe. The translucent quality of the green woman goes perfectly with the fact that she is only a hallucination. 

Viktor Oliva, the Absinthe drinker, 1901. Oil painting, 81x60cm, Slavia, Prague. 

Viktor Oliva, the Absinthe drinker, 1901. Oil painting, 81x60cm, Slavia, Prague. via Wikimedia.

This transparency evokes the idea that the drinker is between two worlds ; one where he can see the woman, and one where he can’t. In digital art, there can also be a visual feel even if there is no physical medium. 

Can exposure from artificial light ruin paintings ?

Light can change our physiological ability to perceive the artwork, but also our affective perception of the artwork. There is the light inside the painting but also and the lighting for paintings. 
How does light affect and deteriorate artworks
In the light we perceive there is a visible and invisible spectrum. The visible spectrum enable  us to see all the colors we know. There are also other colors that we cannot see, but that some other kind of species of animals can, such as bees for instance. 
With time, paintings can be degraded for many reasons. For instance, in oil paiting : the wooden frame of the canvas can change shape, the canvas can get mouldy, and the lin oil becomes more and more yellow with time. Ultraviolet and infrared rays are the most responsible for the deteoriation of paintings. Long exposure to light makes the colors fade in the painting and we don’t perceive them as they were. 
 Unfortunately, artificial light and natural light contain UV that are suceptible to damage paintings overtime. In the long term, light can change the colors but also create cracks in the painting. Most of the mediums are vulnerable to the exposure of light ; watercolor, oil painting, acrylic, ink…

How to prevent photochemical damage in paintings

In order to prevent this kind of damage, only use art lights that are adapted to artwork. Museums usually use special kinds of glass that protect from UV’s. It is best to also avoid any kind of direct light on the artwork.

The good news is that artificial light has actually lower levels of UV’s than natural light. LED lights and fiber optic lamps have the lowest UV radiation levels and therefore are the most commonly used by museums and galleries. 

Special kinds of filters can also be used to reduce the exposure of the light in art. If you want to display art in your home without destroying it, you have to think through what kind of light for paintings would be adapted to the size of your artwork.