How to Paint Highlights

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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:

Frank W. Benson, Eleanor Holding a Shell, 1902
Frank W. Benson, Eleanor Holding a Shell, 1902

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.

Egg Highlight Drawing

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.

Lilla Cabot Perry, Margaret with a Bonnet, 1890
Lilla Cabot Perry, Margaret with a Bonnet, 1890

There are numerous highlights throughout Pieter Claesz's intricate painting below. See if you can spot them. (Hint: Look for edges and corners.)

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life With Spinario, 1628
Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life With Spinario, 1628

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).

Claude Monet, The Port of Le Havre, Night Effect, 1873
Claude Monet, The Port of Le Havre, Night Effect, 1873

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:

François Boucher, Female Nudes
François Boucher, Female Nudes

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.

John Singer Sargent, A Parisian Beggar Girl, 1877 (Close-Up 2)
John Singer Sargent, A Parisian Beggar Girl, 1877

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.

Light And Shadow Terms

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.
François Boucher, Male Drawing
François Boucher, Male Drawing
  • 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.
François Boucher, Aurora, c.1733
François Boucher, Aurora, c.1733

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.

Jan Lievens, Bearded Man With a Beret, 1630
Jan Lievens, Bearded Man With a Beret, 1630

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.

Emily Shanks, Girl, c.1890
Emily Shanks, Girl, c.1890

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.

Emily Shanks, Girl, c.1890 (Eye Drop Tool)

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.

Anders Zorn, Jugend, 1908
Anders Zorn, Jugend, 1908

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:

Konstantin Korovin, Moonlit Night, Paris, 1929
Konstantin Korovin, Moonlit Night, Paris, 1929
Konstantin Korovin, Feodor Chaliapin, 1915
Konstantin Korovin, Feodor Chaliapin, 1915

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.

Willem Claesz. Heda, Breakfast, 1648
Willem Claesz. Heda, Breakfast, 1648

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.

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669

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.

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669 (Grayscale)

In Eva Gonzalès' stunning portrait below, the delicate highlights match the delicate features of the subject.

Eva Gonzalès, Portrait of a Woman in White, 1879
Eva Gonzalès, Portrait of a Woman in White, 1879

In Monet's Houses of Parliament at Sunset, the highlight is the sun itself. Everything else in the painting is there for atmosphere.

Claude Monet, Houses Of Parliament At Sunset, 1903
Claude Monet, Houses Of Parliament At Sunset, 1903

In Anders Zorn's sketch below, notice how much information just a few clever highlights can convey.

Anders Zorn, Ferdinand Boberg, c.1880
Anders Zorn, Ferdinand Boberg, c.1880

Strong light means strong highlights, as shown in Abram Arkhipov's Visiting. 

Abram Arkhipov, Visiting, 1915
Abram Arkhipov, Visiting, 1915
  • 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.
Joaquín Sorolla, A Pink Bathrobe, 1916
Joaquín Sorolla, A Pink Bathrobe, 1916

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

106 comments on “How to Paint Highlights”

  1. I am busy with a stormy cloud scene and was interested when i saw your email. I am busy with the highlights on the clouds.
    Thank you for your comments on highlights. Mush appreciated.

    Reply
    • Comments on highlights meant so much. I think I used highlights correctly on a picture I painted of the back of a sitting nude. Then again, I could have done better with cloud highlights. I can now use this information on my next painting. Thanks.

      Reply
  2. This is great information
    I enjoy all. Your comments but have been working on my highlights in recent paintings and this is helpful info
    Thank you
    Carolyn

    Reply
  3. Marvellous reading.
    Lots of info …. more relevant and easy to understand as it is “example with pictures” at every step.
    Special touch of Dan Scott every time…. helps small learner artists like us (trying with pastels) so much.
    Eagerly waiting for your next lessons….

    Kindest regards.

    Reply
  4. This is very helpful and I will make a copy, so that I will have it for reference.
    I enjoy your ideas and your boundless use of so many different artists.
    Thank you, most sincerely,
    Jean Fava

    Reply
  5. Thank you! I love these lessons – they are always really informative and easy to digest. Really appreciate you sharing your expertise and experience with us.

    Reply
  6. I’ve painted for 57 years but still find articles, particularly this one .( high lights) very refreshing, your choice of examples is very very wise. Really beginning to enjoy your blog.

    Reply
  7. I have been concentrating on highlights more diligently in my work this year, paying closer attention to the brightness of direct and reflected light. As always, your article and examples are very helpful and well worth the time to read and examine closely. Thank you.

    Reply
  8. Very helpful , informative and well explained. I will think differently about highlights the next time. Thank you so much for analyzing and explaining it to us. Greatly appreciated. 🙏🏻👍🏻❤️

    Reply
  9. Great read, and very relevant for me now. I’m painting a morning scene, and getting the light on the trees correct has been quite an education! The mid-tones and highlights are so close in value, if I make the latter even a fraction of a value step too light they stand out immediately. It’s really just a subtle gradation of hue and a slight bump in intensity.

    Reply
  10. Thank you, this is an excellent article. I found your subject clearly explained and with useful examples as illustrations.

    Reply
  11. So look forward to your wonderful knowledgeable and educational emails … a blessing to receive and most of all helping one be more and a better painter. Thank You so very much for the time you give so generously enhancing the knowledge of others who so wish to learn.

    Reply
  12. GRACIAS DAN POR TUS LECCIONES QUE LLEGAN DE VEZ EN CUANDO-
    TENGO YA 78 AÑOS Y LAMENTO NO HABER RECIBIDO TUS CLASES CUANDO ERA MUCHO MAS JOVEN- NO OBSTANTE, APROVECHO TODO LO QUE TU GENEROSIDAD INMENSA NOS HACE LLEGAR EN ESTOS ARTICULOS-
    REITERO: SOLO LOS GRANDES MAESTROS SON GENEROSOS COMO TU- TE VUELVO A AGRADECER POR TENER ESTA ACTITUD PARA CON LOS QUE AMAMOS LA PINTURA

    Reply
  13. What a great lesson. Thank you for this detail explanation of highlights. It really makes me think before painting anything! Where is the light coming from and how does it cast its shadow? Nicely done.

    Reply
  14. Dan I am signed up to receive many art related newsletters by email. So many that I don’t have time to read them all. Yours is one of just a very few, that I click to eagerly read as soon as I see it. I am never disappointed. You are a master at teaching complex things in a simple way. Thank You! I can’t wait for a published book someday?!?!

    Reply
  15. DEA LITTLE BROTHER DAN,
    THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR YOUR FREE LESSONS.That was great. Bless you for doing this for us free of charge, you are a great man.
    THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
    WONDERFUL EXAMPLES.. WONDERFUL LESSONS.

    Reply
  16. Ahhhhhhhh The masters nothing like studying the masters. AMAZING. Makes me want to paint 🥰 can’t wait to pick up my brush and using these examples of highlights.
    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS INSPIRING LESSON.

    Reply
  17. Thank you. I so enjoy your post.
    Very helpful. Now I am going to check out highlights on my older work, to see if I used them correctly.

    Reply
  18. Note the subtle highlight on the guitar chord held by Boberg in Zorn’s painting above. Not sure if that was an implied gesture in1880, however it absolutely compliments the expression of the guitar player. Apologies, I couldn’t help it.

    Reply
  19. Dan, such lovely master’s examples that you give with your lessons. Those alone are enough to make me read your posts but throw in free advice of such quality and it’s delightfully instructional. Thank you for your dedication to educating us in this way.

    Reply
  20. It’s nice to be reminded of the elements that make highlights the connection between the viewer and What the artist’s composition is trying to communicate through those highlights. The examples you used are very good.
    Thank you Dan for sharing

    Reply
  21. Thank you so much, you have highlighted me. I was always afraid of highlights and now because of you I am much more confident.
    Thanks so much.

    Reply
  22. Thank you so much for these tutorials! I especially appreciated the tip about how more reflective surfaces (metal, glass) give stronger, more condensed highlights!

    Reply
  23. Thank you – your tutorials are so helpful. As I am a beginner you are teaching me so much that I have never thought about – I guess I observed highlights but didn’t think how to paint them.

    Reply
  24. In addition to your painting talent, I think you are telepathic! This is the 3rd time I have gone to bed thinking about an aspect of painting that I was struggling with and I wake up the next day to your post that discusses exactly what I need! THANK YOU SO MUCH!

    Reply
  25. Such an enlightening article ( and no I wasn’t trying to be clever….but I was. haha) I spent most of yesterday reading through your articles which I have been saving until I had time to study them. I have found your explanations and information really helpful. Thank you.

    Reply
  26. Again, I am ever so thankful, having not painted for over a year, to be reminded of technique.
    Soon, I shall experiment. Thank you.

    Reply
  27. Always so helpful, informative, and interesting ! Thank you ! To read these short lessons is a highlight of my day!

    Reply
  28. Thanks Dan, this post has put a new light on the subject for me. ( chuckle to self). I found it very interesting, I’m one of those people who heads for the white instinctively for highlights. Now I will mend my ways and hopefully become a slightly better artist. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  29. The surety of these Masters strokes can only produce the hope for the amateur that their waste paper baskets are equally full.
    Then we can have something in common.
    Thank you you are indeed a natural ex plainer.

    Reply
  30. Very good lesson and, most of all, very well organised information.
    Dan, I feel like you are looking inside my studio thru the window and pinpoint all the mistakes I make and drow me to the right path.
    Thank you for your altruism in puting all this knowledge at our disposal!

    Reply
  31. Dan, I greatly appreciate the time you take in your research and sharing of information. I always learn something!
    I also appreciate the introduction to artists of whom I have never heard!!!

    Reply
  32. Thank you Dan for sending your easy to understand lessons. I read them all and have learned so much. You have a way to make it all look easy. All I have to do is remember everything I’ve read and my paintings will improve. Thanks again Rod

    Reply
  33. Thank you Dan for sending your easy to understand notes and lessons. I read them all and have learned so much. You have a way to make it all look easy. All I have to do is remember everything I’ve read and my paintings will improve. Thanks again Rod

    Reply
  34. Very interesting subject, still studying and reading your
    Article on highlights.
    Very much appreciated, thanks and greetings
    from Anita Quintana

    Reply
  35. From Quebec, Canada. Thank you so much for this lesson. I had never really thought of highlights in this way. You make things clearer.

    Reply
  36. Very inspiring and well explained. I’ve been learning inductively placement the why, where and how of highlights, but I hadn’t understood it well until I read Dan’s reflections on the subject. I’m working ow on a painting and I will enjoy experimenting anew. Thank you!

    Reply
  37. You are an inspirational teacher. Thank you so very much for giving your time and sharing your expertise so generously to enhance the knowledge of others. I’m learning so much reading your blogs.

    Reply
  38. This was extremely helpful. I do alot of underwater sealife scenes and highlights are sometimes distorted by the water. Lots of practice lies ahead.

    Reply
  39. Thank you I love when you analysis a concept using the masters to explain this concept. I have learned and relearned reading this tutorial.

    Reply
  40. ‘Thank you once again for wonderful instruction. Love the samples of artists works to reinforce your points… love being introduced to artists that I may be unfamiliar with… also your recommendations regarding additional resources are spot on and very useful… I look forward to your emails and eagerly open them for your direction… thank you very much.

    Reply
  41. Thank you for your detailed information about highlights for paintings. I agree with all of the comments and examples you have provided for the explanation, as I absorbed the notes. I wish I could show you some of my paintings with the highlights that seem to bring them to life, near the final strokes of the painting – just as you described! some have even the slighted change in tone but, bold or gentle, highlights are my favorite part in bringing my painted “figures” (human or wildlife) to life.

    Reply
  42. Thank you Dan,
    You are such a good teacher! This article was yet another example of how you reach people
    In the arts. I enjoy and treasure each post .
    Ann Morrison

    Reply
  43. Thank you Dan for your lesson on highlights. I really appreciate it. I liked the paintings you used to demonstrate. Again thanks.

    Reply

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