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Watercolor Techniques Using Color & Light For Ultra-Dramatic Paintings

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Part One, Step Three

Direction of Lighting: A final principle important in painting with light is to understand the characteristics of the varying directions of lighting. The direction of the lighting affects the modeling and definition of the subject and its setting, as well as the mood and atmosphere of the painting.

Four major directions for light to enter the painting are shown below: from the front, three-quarters, side, and back.

  • Front lighting: Light coming directly from the front tends to reduce descriptive modeling to a minimum since most visible surfaces are equally illuminated and there is little or no visible shadow. Rich, intense colors and values are possible.


  • Three-quarters lighting: At an angle of approximately 45 degrees to the subject, light, shade, and shadow are all present in significant amounts. This improves the descriptive modeling of the subject and provides opportunities for rich colors, values, and contrast.


  • Side lighting: Like the three-quarters lighting, side lighting gives a strong feeling of solidity and three-dimensionality. Very dramatic cast shadows are often possible, creating opportunities for strong forms which may be very descriptive of the surfaces on which they fall. There is strong dramatic potential for design and composition purposes with side lighting.


  • Back lighting: Light coming from behind the subject creates more of a silhouetted image. You can brighten and soften edges of shapes where appropriate to indicate the way light creates a “halo” or rim effect. This lighting is characterized by a narrow range of mid- to dark values. Colors should be cool and muted. Depending on lighting intensity, forms may flatten and details become vague. The overall impression may be low-key, shadowy and cool, ambiguous, or even mysterious. This type of lighting has the potential for great dramatic design and composition purposes.