Highlights are tricky. Get them wrong and your whole painting will look slightly off. Get them right and it pulls everything together, like slotting the missing piece into a jigsaw puzzle.
Let's take a closer look at what highlights are, how to paint them, and some of the nuances to look out for. I'll cover:
Highlights are basically areas of concentrated light, where light bounces off an object and hits our eyes. Below is a simple example using an egg. Light comes from the right, bounces off the egg, and hits our eyes. On a separate note, this is also a wonderful demonstration of the "warm light, cool shadow" idea.
In Lilla Cabot Perry's portrait below, the strongest highlights are on the tip of the nose and the specs of light in her eyes. There are also less brilliant highlights above and below her eye on the light side, around her lips, and above the fringe of her hair. Notice how the highlights are picking up edges and structures, but more on that later in this post.
There are numerous highlights throughout Pieter Claesz's intricate painting below. See if you can spot them. (Hint: Look for edges and corners.)
Highlights might also be direct light sources. Like the scattered lights and their reflections in Claude Monet's The Port of Le Havre, Night Effect (below).
A good exercise for seeing and understanding highlights is to scroll through the Old Masters' toned paper drawings. These typically have three values: darks, mid-tones (the color of the paper), and distinct highlights. Here's one by François Boucher:
Highlights are often mistaken as being fixed and independent. As if they are specs of white light that must always be painted with dabs of pure titanium white. Sometimes that's the case, but certainly not always.
In a low-lit scene, highlights might be much darker than what you would typically expect. For example, look at John Singer Sargent's portrait below. In isolation, the highlights on the face look more like mid-tones. But they appear as highlights in the context of the dark surroundings.
Under the bright midday sun, highlights might be glimmering specs of white that we can only dream of capturing on the canvas (but of course it's our job to try). Bato Dugarzhapov's work comes to mind.
Think of highlight as a relative term. What does the highlight look like in relation to the surrounding colors, mid-tones, and shadows? Refer to my image below if you need a recap on the major light and shadow terms and to see where highlights fall in the light spectrum.
Remember, highlights have no meaning without mid-tones and shadows. If you were to paint a highlight in isolation, you would end up with a white canvas (on the plus side, you might be able to sell it for a few million to high-end art collectors).
Highlights are not fixed in position. Unlike shadows and mid-tones, highlights move when we move in relation to the subject. To see what I mean, grab an egg from your fridge and place it on a desk under a lamp. Move your head and watch as the highlight moves, emerges, or disappears.
Imagine there's a line going from the light source, bouncing off the egg, and hitting your eyes. The "bounce" point is the highlight.
Of course, an egg is a simple example. But the idea runs true even for the most complex subjects. Just break the subject down into basic forms and consider where light is bouncing back at your eyes.
Steve Huston's book, Figure Drawing for Artists: Making Every Mark Count, has a fantastic section on highlights and how they can be used to reiterate edges, structure, and gesture. I'll summarize some of his points but I urge you to invest in his book if you want more explanation. It's worth getting if only for his beautiful drawings.
- You will often (not always) find highlights at edges of objects. Refer to Boucher's drawing below. Notice how the highlights track the folds in the clothing. This drawing also shows how much of art comes down to simply getting your lights and darks right.
- Placing a highlight close to a core shadow can create a powerful statement. Huston does this all the time in his work.
- When portrait painting, consider using highlights to reiterate the overall gesture of the pose. Just make sure you stay in touch with what you actually see. In Boucher's drawing below, notice how the highlights not only reiterate the muscles, bones, and curves of the figure, but they also help your eyes move throughout the pose's overall gesture.
Highlights are light by nature, but perhaps not as light as you initially think. The sharp contrast of highlights against mid-tones and shadows can make them appear lighter than they really are. Be careful of these optical traps; our eyes often deceive us in order to make sense of the world. Try to look at highlights objectively. Consider:
- How much light is being reflected?
- How reflective is the object? (Some objects reflect more light; think silver cutlery, a wine glass, or a copper kettle.)
- How strong is the light?
- What is the color temperature of the light? (Is it warm like candlelight or cool like an overcast day?)
As for the color or hue of the highlight, it will get whiter as it gets stronger. Highlights are concentrated light and when you combine all the colors of light together, you get white light.
Highlights which are a bit darker (more like light mid-tones) will have more color. Take this wonderful portrait by Jan Lievens for example. The highlights are subtle and naturally extend from the mid-tones.
Even with strong highlights, like in the portrait below, I think you'll find they are not as light as they look. If you ever want to check, use the eyedrop tool in Photoshop or any other editing software.
In the image below, the inner rectangle is the color of the strongest highlight on the subject's nose. The outer rectangle is pure white for reference.
Whatever color you use to paint highlights, make sure they fit with the rest of your painting. If you're painting a candlelit interior scene, blue highlights won't make sense. If you're painting an overcast landscape, warm highlights might look out of place.
You don't need virtuoso brushwork to paint highlights; a dab of paint will usually suffice. Be careful not to overthink or overdo it.
My best advice is to work up to the highlights and be patient. If the foundation of your painting is sound, the highlights should come naturally. But highlights won't save a sloppy painting; they will be the killing blow. I heard an artist once say, "you need to earn your highlights". Unfortunately, I cannot remember who, but there's truth in those words.
Highlights will usually come last in your painting, unless you're using watercolors. As John Singer Sargent put it:
“If you begin with the middle-tone and work up from it toward the darks so that you deal last with your highest lights and darkest darks, you avoid false accents.” John Singer Sargent
If you paint them too early, you might spend the rest of your painting trying to protect them. However, I have seen some artists lay down highlights early in the painting to act as a reference point (with the highlights in place, you know that all other colors need to be darker).
Painting highlights last means that you will usually be painting wet on wet. This requires a loaded brush; otherwise, the paint will mix and your highlights won't look crisp.
I like to use thick paint for highlights. This seems to add a little extra punch and can play into a theme of thick lights, thin shadows. And there's nothing more beautiful than luscious highlights.
Whatever you do, don't get reckless. It's always a shame when you get through 95% of a painting only to mess it all up with poor highlights. Slow it down, think about your strokes, and when you're ready to pull the trigger, go at it with confidence. Remember, you usually only need one good stroke for a highlight. So make it a good one.
Our eyes are drawn towards highlights. You can use this to your advantage when designing your composition. Concentrate highlights around points of interest. (Don't place highlights in the bottom corner of your painting, unless that's where you want people to look.)
The Russian's are masters of this. They use concentrated bursts of color and light to draw your attention to focal points. Here are some examples by Konstantin Korovin:
I'll run through some other master paintings and point out the highlights along with some comments. It's worth doing this yourself—try to pinpoint the highlights in your favorite master paintings and consider why the work.
Let's start with an intricate still life by Willem Claesz. Heda. This is a great example of how some objects have stronger highlights. Compare the metal and glass highlights to the wood highlights at the bottom.
Notice how Rembrandt worked up to the highlights in his portrait below. We get to see an almost full range of values, from the almost black background to the almost white highlight on his nose.
Below is a grayscale of the painting to give you a clearer look at all the values. It's interesting how the highlight on the nose appears even stronger with color out of the equation. Remember from earlier in this post how the appearance of a highlight changes based on the surrounding colors, among other things. It's not fixed.
In Eva Gonzalès' stunning portrait below, the delicate highlights match the delicate features of the subject.
In Monet's Houses of Parliament at Sunset, the highlight is the sun itself. Everything else in the painting is there for atmosphere.
In Anders Zorn's sketch below, notice how much information just a few clever highlights can convey.
Strong light means strong highlights, as shown in Abram Arkhipov's Visiting.
- Highlights are small but powerful. Get them right and they will pull everything in your painting together.
- Think of highlight as a relative term. What do the highlights look like in relation to the other colors?
- Don't mindlessly reach for titanium white every time you need to paint a highlight.
- Highlights occur when light bounces off an object and hits your eyes.
- You can use highlights to reiterate edges, structure, and gesture.
- Highlights get whiter as they get stronger. Darker highlights tend to be more colorful.
- Work up to your highlights. Don't rush them. If you set the stage correctly, the highlights should come easily.
- You can use highlights to draw attention to focal points, as you see in many of the great Russian paintings.