Understanding Light Direction in Landscape Painting

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Why It Matters

Light Direction in a Landscape Painting
The five basic possibilities for the direction of .light in a landscape painting. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

One of the most crucial aspects for getting a landscape painting to look authentic or realistic is to have the direction of the light consistent across all the elements in a painting. Actually, this 'rule' applies to any subject you're painting, unless you're a Surrealist perhaps. When you're still at composition stage, you need to decide which direction the light is going to come from as this influences the shadows, contrasts, and colors. If you're plein-air painting, this means waiting for a particular time of day for the sun to be shining the 'right' way.

So what are your options? Simply put, there are five:

  1. Side or Low Lighting
  2. Back Lighting
  3. Top Lighting
  4. Front Lighting
  5. Diffused or Overcast Lighting

It can get more complicated than this if, for instance, there's light reflecting off a surface. But let's stick to the basics.

It's well worthwhile playing around with an angle-poise lamp (if possible, use a daylight bulb) and a simple still-life setup to really get to grasp with light direction and shadows.

Move the lamp to the side, back, front, and into an elevated position. Put a sheet of paper over it to diffuse the light. Sketch the various scenes, taking particular note of where the shadows falls and where the highlights are. Look at the colors and how the different directions of light influence this and the appearance of the objects.

This knowledge will enable you to apply a light source consistently and effectively when painting (and it's still relevant even if you're painting from your imagination). It also helps interpret what you're looking at when you're painting a landscape and to be aware of how the light changes.

Note:The options are described here with application to a landscape painting, but apply equally to any subject.

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Landscape Painting: Side or Low Lighting

Light Direction in Landscape Painting
Landscape Painting: Side or Low Light Source. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Side or low lighting is where the light hits objects from one side. In nature, side lighting occurs at early dawn and sunset, producing long shadows.

In a still life, you can easily set up side lighting from either the left or right side of the objects.

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Landscape Painting: Back Lighting

Light Direction in Landscape Painting
Landscape Painting: Back Light Source. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Back lighting is the light is directly behind the object. This tends to create a dark silhouette of the object. By changing your position relative to the object, it

may

be possible to change the lighting from back to side.

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Landscape Painting: Top Lighting

Light Direction in Landscape Painting
Landscape Painting : Top Light Source. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Top lighting is, as the name indicates, when the light hits objects from above. In nature, top lighting occurs around midday. Shadows are small and directly underneath objects.

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Landscape Painting: Front Lighting

Light Direction in Landscape Painting
Landscape Painting: Front Light Source. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Front lighting is when the sun is shining directly on the front of an object. This eliminates fine detail, flattening the object, and creates stark contrasts between light and shade areas. By changing your position relative to the object, it

may

be possible to change the lighting from front to side.

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Landscape Painting: Diffused or Overcast Light Source

Light Direction in Landscape Painting
Landscape Painting: Diffused or Overcast Light Source. Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Diffused lighting occurs the light is filtered, softening shadows and colors, and eliminating stark contrasts. In nature this occurs on overcast days where the sunlight is filtered through the clouds (or through city pollution or forest-fire smoke).