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10 Tips For Painting Backlit Scenes

Have you ever looked at a painting and the light effect was so strong, you almost have to squint at it? Here ten tips that you can implement immediately to execute better backlighting.

  1. Start by preparing with a tone that’s the color of the light. Feel free to go very saturated.

Every color in the scene, even in the shadows, is going to have an influence of that color. I can draw in the shapes with a warm dark color, such as burnt umber. I can always cool it down later as I go.

  1. Start with a light/dark block-in using the color family of the light source.

I'm setting up the scene for the effect, which is not usually how I go about painting in most circumstances. Since it's all about what's happening with that light effect, I am considering it a lot more in the beginning as I go, instead of trying to force it into the scene later.

It's akin to what you would do with traditional watercolor where we’re working light to dark in that way. 

  1. Due to the effect of the light hitting our eyes at a more direct angle, more of the color/detail information is obliterated as we get closer to the light source.

  1. The color of the light dictates the color scheme we will be framing the painting into. I rely on value changes mainly instead of color changes to describe form. 

  1. The color of reflected light will describe the light planes in the darks. And that's true for really anything you're painting.

  1. After establishing my scene, I like to start refining my painting near the light source and work my way out from it. This helps establish the range of values I can work with to keep the light effect strong. And it's a lot easier to get that luminosity in the beginning here, rather than trying to fit it over my painting later.

  1. The closer I am to the light source, the warmer everything is, even in the shadows. So as I go from light to dark, they're all going to be in a nearly-analogous color range.

In order to maintain that light effect, you have to be very consistent with your rules that you set like that as you go. 

  1. As you move out from the light source and the light hits the edge of those surfaces that the light is being blocked by, the color of the light spills on to that edge and changes the color of the edge to be more influenced by the light. And there is a miniscule gradient that occurs as it transitions from light to dark on that edge. There's a color temperature transition as you move away from the light.

  1. As you move further out from the light source, the cooler your shadows get. Inversely, the closer you get to the light source, the warmer your dark shapes get. They go through a gradation of color temperature from warmer to cooler.

  1. Remember, on a scale of temperature, “neutral” is cooler than “warm,” so in order to keep the effect of warmth in the areas near the light, just use neutral colors such as gray, neutral tint, even colored neutrals like van dyke brown or ochre to shift temperatures as you render form.

The atmospheric depth that happens in a beach scene because of all the moisture in the air influences the amount of dissipating light, but you can find examples of this in pretty much any time where you're facing into the sun. It probably won't spread out as far when there is less moisture in the air, but you can find examples of it everywhere as long as you're painting into the light. Even if you don’t have a reference photo you can work from that has a lot of backlighting, you can set up a still life in front of a lamp that's facing you and see this principle in action as well.

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