How often have you propped up your work, sat back to see what you have achieved only to find that there is something definitely lacking with your end result?

Some areas of the painting may look quite impressive; the overall composition has been faithfully recorded; and some of your friends have even politely said that they liked it and that it was just like the actual view. Nevertheless, there is a gut feeling that gets stronger as time elapses, that it isn’t quite that piece of work you’d hoped would stop everyone in their tracks!

Well, maybe it is because you had not made the best use of light and shade to create greater dimension.

All paintings have light and shade to varying degrees. However, as artists, we are able to interpret a scene before us in all manner of ways. We can use light and shade to describe ‘form’, suggest a focal point, give the illusion of recession and space, create chiaroscuro, emphasise ‘counterchange’ or to unify the overall composition.

Local and reflected colour

Local colour appears when there is no strong light and shade in a particular view or scene. It is the actual colour of an object. For instance, local colour is the exact red hue of a letter box, or the colour of the bodywork of a motor vehicle.

If you wanted to mix or purchase some paint that is the same red as the letter box – perhaps to paint over some unwanted graffiti – you would need a colour that is the object’s local colour.

The Blue Door.  Pastel on pastel card 17” x 13” (43.1cm x 33cm). With the light coming from the extreme right, the shadows carve out the form of the doorway and the surrounding shrubbery.

Closely observing what is before us, we realise that colour rarely appears as local colour. We are able to see because of light, but that light can alter the appearance of things quite dramatically.

In our primary school years, we were told that green ‘lollipop’ trees had brown trunks. These are fixed preconceived ideas that remain with us into our adulthood to varying degrees. It is important to paint what we actually see rather than what we think we know.

Reflective colour is the colour you mix in order to paint something seen in a particular context. When different colours are in close proximity to each other. Similarly, when colours are seen in different light conditions, they take on a completely new appearance and local colour can be dissolved.

Riverside. Pastel on pastel card 18” x 23” (45.7cm x 58.5cm). The diagonal ‘eleven o’clock’ shadow on the right as the perfect solution to take the eye into the painting.

The ever-changing scene

Looking through one of my old sketchbooks I discovered the following words, which I must have jotted down a long time ago.

“I have been out painting and suddenly the view has been absolutely transformed.  A stunning burst of strong sunlight has flooded the scene, creating an incredible ‘biblical’ experience of light, with dramatic shadows completely dominating the view before me, causing a wonderful diffused quality of light.”

Shady Courtyard.  Pastel on pastel card 13½” x 17½” (34.3cm x 44.5cm)

When the sun eventually lit up the building, the whole scene was divided into light and masses and counterchange dominated the composition.

Variations in light conditions and different times of the day, can alter the appearance of a scene. One moment the subject can be bathed in glorious light – say at the start of the day when the sun is low and the shadows are long, and within a few hours can appear quite different, with subtle local colour and complex tonal values becoming the essential elements in the picture.

Every time I go to the theatre, I seem to spend most of the time engrossed in the lighting effects. When the various spotlights are focused on the centre of the stage the highlights and shadows totally transform its overall appearance. If the spotlight is a particular colour, the shadows become its complementary colour. For example, a red light creates a green shadow, and an orange light creates a blue shadow. This phenomenon also occurs, to a lesser degree, in nature and one of the features of Australia’s strong golden light is a unique purple hue that permeates the shadows.

I have often been asked whether I paint only when the sun is shining because the sun is invariably out in my paintings. The fact that I am essentially a pastellist means I cannot afford to be outside painting if the weather looks remotely inclement! Also, because a large part of my life has been spent living and painting in Australia, I come alive (as do my paintings) when the sun is shining.

Looking through half-closed eyes (squinting) is something I happen to do regularly when I’m painting as it helps me see tonal values clearly and simply. Faced with the problem of changing light conditions, I try to think ahead and decide at what particular time I will commit myself to putting in highlights and shadows. If the early morning light will be dominating the painting, I will have to establish the light direction right form the start but, more importantly, I shall have to retain it in my mind long after that moment has passed.

The Meeting Place, Pacy-sur-Eure.  Pastel on pastel card 18½” x 23” (47cm x 58.4cm) This complex painting uses light and shade to create the illusion of recession, describe form, emphasise counterchange and to unite the overall composition.

Key points

Remember the following points when introducing light and shade to your work.

  1. Try to identify exactly why you are using light and shade
  2. Don’t give all the elements in your work equal importance. Some parts of your painting will be the ‘stars’ and others merely supporting acts.
  3. Be consistent. If outdoors, establish at what time of day you’ll commit yourself to putting in the highlights and shadows.
  4. Use notes, thumbnail sketches and/or Polaroid photographs as an aide memoire if the light looks as if it will change.
  5. Look closely at your shadows. Some may appear warm, cool, soft-edged, hard-edged, delicate or bold, particularly if you are trying to create a feeling of recession in your work.
  6. Cast shadows can be an excellent vehicle for describing shapes and forms.
  7. Shadows are rarely a black transparent layer over a particular colour.
  8. Leave the strongest highlights, darkest shadows and accents until last.
  9. Try not to say too much. People who do are invariably boring.
  10. Keep looking, digesting and analysing as you go.

I discovered long ago that light and shade are powerful and potent elements that offer a range of contrasts to help you create more dimension in your work.