Reflected light is one of those small but powerful details that can make or break your painting. This post will help you paint it more accurately. I’ll cover:
- What Is Reflected Light?
- Reflected Light and Value
- Reflected Light and Color
- Reflected Light and Observation
- A Note on Cameras
- Other Examples of Reflected Light
- An Exercise for You
- Key Takeaways
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
What Is Reflected Light?
Reflected light is light that bounces or reflects off objects. For example, the light bouncing off and around the walls of your room—that’s reflected light. It’s not as strong as a direct light source but it can illuminate objects.
You’ll see it best in the shadows. When reflected light bounces off the surroundings and into an object’s shadow, it makes parts of the shadow lighter. This adds complexity and nuance to the shadows. Not only must you think about the subject in terms of light and shadow, but you also need to consider the subtle light and dark relationships within the shadow due to reflected light.
To see reflected light, take an egg from your fridge and place it under a light. Part of the egg will be in light and part will be in shadow. The part of the egg in shadow is called the form shadow. There will also be a cast shadow on the surface below the egg. The edge that marks the transition between light and shadow is called the terminator line or core shadow. This is typically the darkest part of the form shadow. Notice how the form shadow gets lighter around the edge. This is reflected light. It represents light bouncing off the surrounding surfaces and into the form shadow.
Below are examples of reflected light in two recent paintings of mine. In Maryvale, Cows, reflected light bounces up off the ground and across the underside of the two standing cows. Notice the yellowish tint around these areas.
In Tree Series, High Contrast, reflected light bounces up from the ground and between the branches and illuminates parts of the main tree. This reflected light is what makes the tree look like a tree. Up until I made those marks, the tree looked like nothing more than a dark, abstract shape.
Reflected Light and Value
A good rule of thumb for the value (lightness) of reflected light is to make it:
- Dark enough to appear as part of the shadow; and
- A touch lighter than the rest of the shadow.
The first part is important. If you make your reflected light too light, it will compromise the shadow and your painting won’t read properly. Your shadows should always look like shadows.
Reflected Light and Color
The color (hue and temperature) of the reflected light is more complex and nuanced than its value. It also provides more opportunities to inject your artistic flare into the painting without compromising the sense of realism (value doesn’t give you as much creative freedom to work with).
The main variables that determine the color of the reflected light are the color temperature of the primary light source, the color of the objects reflecting the light, and the local color of the object being hit by the reflected light.
Joaquín Sorolla has some wonderful examples. He pushed color into the shadows in a way that shouldn’t be possible! I imagine this can be attributed to his many years of painting from life and an acute eye for subtle color relationships. In his Elena Among the Roses, look at the rich pinks and reds on the subject’s face. This is reflected light bouncing up from her dress into the shadow of her face.
Sorolla’s beach paintings are particularly stunning in terms of color and reflected light. Below is The Three Sisters on the Beach. I did a small study of this painting some time ago (also shown below). I remember realizing just how much color you can get away with using in the shadows to depict reflected light. It was an eye-opening experience.
(See the supplies page for details about what I use and recommend.)
Reflected Light and Observation
I find observation to be the most helpful tool in painting reflected light. Observation allows you to make a quick assessment of all the variables without getting bogged down in calculated thought. What do your eyes tell you? In most cases, you don’t need to understand why the reflected light looks the way it does, you just need to clearly observe and paint it.
When observation doesn’t work or make sense, you can fall back on what you know about reflected light. Where should it be? What is its structure? What are the variables that influence its color?
A Note on Cameras
Cameras struggle with reflected light and the subtle colors and nuances of shadows. Especially with high-contrast scenes where the shadows tend to be underexposed.
How do you combat this?
You could paint from life and avoid reference photos altogether. This is what Sorolla did and it surely worked for him! This is the best way to clearly observe and paint reflected light. But of course, it’s not always practical and it ignores the logistical benefits of photos.
You could paint small studies from life and make notes on your observations of reflected light. Then, back in the studio, you could refer to both your studies and reference photos to paint the main piece. This way you get the best of both worlds.
If you are painting strictly from photos, you must learn and understand reflected light and make logical assumptions about its placement and color. You could also use editing software to make your reference photo lighter in order to reveal more detail in the shadows. This won’t help much with the color, but it will help with the structure. This is what I did for my current painting in progress. Below is the reference photo I’m working from. See how the shadows of the main boat are underexposed and the structure and nuances are lost in darkness.
I can lighten the photo using Photoshop. This provides me with some valuable insight into the subtle light and dark relationships within the shadows.
Other Examples of Reflected Light
Below are some other examples of reflected light. See if you can spot the reflected light. Pay close attention to the relationships between the reflected light and the surrounding colors.
An Exercise for You
As you go about the rest of your day, try to identify and clearly observe examples of reflected light. Take a mental note of the colors, the relationships, and where the reflected light is coming from. This will help you consolidate your new understanding and appreciation of reflected light.
Once reflected light is in your world of understanding, you’ll start to see it everywhere and you’ll actively look for it on the subject. This makes it easier to paint (the first step to accurately painting something is knowing it exists and clearly observing it).
- Reflected light is small but powerful and can make or break your painting.
- Reflected light should be dark enough to read as part of the shadow. Don’t let reflected light compromise the integrity of your shadows!
- The color of reflected light is complex and nuanced. It’s also where you can inject some of your artistic flare.
- Observation is your best tool for determining the color of reflected light. It allows you to quickly assess all the variables in front of you.
- Cameras struggle with reflected light and shadows in general. Being aware of this limitation helps you compensate for it.
- Once reflected light is in your world of understanding, you’ll start to see it everywhere and you’ll actively look for it on the subject. This makes it easier to paint.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.
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