All About The Light – Part 1: Light Direction

What makes a painting or a photograph exciting and realistic — the light.

In order for a painting to look realistic there must be light and shadows so we move from 2D to 3D.  In order to pick a good reference photo with the best light possible we need to understand where the source of the light is.  If you put together a composite picture, you need to be sure that the light source is the same in all of the components or it won’t look right.

The issue I find most problematic is selecting a good reference photo with the best light possible. We look at examples to understand where the light is in a photograph.

1. Determining the Light Direction – Why this is important

“One of the most crucial aspects” to get a” painting to look authentic or realistic is to have the direction of the light consistent across all the elements in a painting. 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.”1

Look at these images:

What makes them interesting is that the light source is clear and distinct and easy to find and the shadows created are deep and dramatic.

Let’s examine the pictures to learn more.


 1Understanding Light Direction in Landscape Painting at

2. Different Types of Lighting

Let us look at five different directions of light:

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

We are going to save reflected light for another lesson.

3. Let’s begin with Side or Low Lighting

Look at these images:



With Side or Low Lighting the source of the light is on one side.  This is a style used by the Renaissance masters.  The light is bright and the shadows are long on the opposite side of the light.

I love this light and if you are outside it’s the shots in the early morning or late in the day. Often the color of the light is different than it is in midday. *(all images are from Pixabay)


4. Back Lighting


Back Lighting is beautiful too and harder to achieve. The shadows are right in front of the viewer and a bit of the light sneaks around objects into view.


5. Top Lightingtop-lighting

With the light directly overhead there are not many shadows. The chickens in the lower picture are very flat. The muffins have shadows but they are casting their own.

6. Front Lighting


Here the photographer is right in front of the sunflower and there are no shadows.

7. Diffused or Overcast Lighting


These pictures are dull because there really isn’t any distinct light source or shadows.  I see a lot of paintings using overcast reference pictures and they could be so much better if they picked a picture with some light. Family photos, pets, landscapes from trips often fall into this category. If you have to use one of these then make up your own light an apply it evenly in your painting.

8. Let’s Find Better Photographs

This isn’t a very exciting photo but by selecting one with some light and shadows it’s improved.


Look how much more interesting this picture of the rocks is with the light and shadows.



9. Options for the Sunflower that was Front Lit


Look at the three options for a better sunflower reference photo: two from the side and one backlit.

10. A Better Chicken Photo



11. Next Lesson is Determining Light Source

We also need a method to determine the light source in our reference photo.

2 responses on "All About The Light - Part 1: Light Direction"

  1. Thank you for this lesson in light source. The pictures you chose made me slow down in my reading, and really look for the source of light, and any shadows.

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