Contrast: The Power of Light

I’ve talked about contrast a lot in the past. Recently I woke up to a great example of contrast in the real world that I thought might be helpful to share. (I’ll link to the previous contrast articles at the end of this post.)

Window light 1 crop 600Look closer and you might also see the power of cat hair in action.

The picture above is of a wall in my bedroom. The black shape on the right is a blackout curtain. The picture was taken on an overcast day, but you can still see the light sneaking through the curtain to shine on the wall. My bedroom wall is a dark green colour. I’m including the official paint company swatch below, but I’d say it’s even slightly darker than that in real life. Close to the colour of Reaper Paint’s Forest Green if you have that one. (It’s called Night Watch. We didn’t pick it for the nerdy name, but it’s a nice bonus. ;->)

Night watch ppg timeless paint colors ppg1145 7tsg 16 64 1000

So that’s the midtone colour of my wall. If you look at my room picture above, you’ll see that the shadows go down to pure black, and the highlights are much lighter green in colour. You may think they appear almost white right next to the edge of the curtain. We’ll take a look at the exact colours in a minute, but for now just take a minute to appreciate how large that range of contrast is. Probably a lot stronger than the contrast you’re painting on your figures, particularly if you’re a painter who worries that too much contrast will look cartoonish and not realistic.

This contrast is created because light is powerful stuff (and the absence of light is likewise powerful in creating dark shadows.) The effect of the light is particularly dramatic in this scenario because there’s a small bright area of light penetrating into a dark room. 

So if this effect of dramatic contrast actually is realistic, Why do we seem not to be able to ’see’ this dramatic effect in the colour and value (lightness vs darkness) of objects around us?

One answer is that often the appearance of highlights and shadows is not quite as dramatic as this. If there are numerous or larger sources of light, the light bounces around and creates a more diffused lighting effect. Very diffuse light may be a lot easier to paint, but it is not very exciting to look at. If you study movie making or photography at all, you know that photographers and movie makers choose to shoot at certain times of day or use lights and reflectors to light their scenes in very specific ways. They do this to help convey emotion and story, but also just to make their scenes more interesting to look at. Our miniature figures will benefit a lot if we paint them with more interesting and dramatic lighting. If you know anything about movie making or photography, I recommend that you apply everything you know about dramatic lighting in those fields to how you approach painting shadows and highlights on your miniature figures, and you’ll improve your handling of contrast immensely!

The following is a picture in the same room taken with the overhead light turned on and sunlight coming through the window. It is less dramatic, and probably a little less interesting. There is also still a wider range between the value of the lightest colour on the wall and the darkest colour of the wall than many people feel comfortable painting.

Overhead light 600

This next picture is the same scene but using the flash on the camera, which is an additional light source. So it has three light sources – the overhead light, the sun coming through the window, and the flash from the camera. The flash is bright enough that it overpowers the effect of the light coming in from under the curtain so that’s not really visible in this photo. It also creates a pretty dramatic range in value between the brightest highlights and darkest shadows on the wall.

Flash light 600

The other reason we have trouble seeing the level of contrast around us in every day life helps explain why we often fail when we attempt to paint stronger contrast. We are literally ‘of two minds’ about the things we see. (At least two.) Part of our mind looks at things exactly as they are. There’s another part of our mind that adds our general knowledge and experience in to our view of what we see. It interprets the things we see with or into information it thinks we will find useful to performing various activities. That information is useful for a lot of areas of life, but it can be actively unhelpful when trying to create art.

Let’s return to my wall to see what I mean. The paint swatch shown above is the midtone colour. I know that’s the colour of the wall – I went to a bit of effort to pick it out! ;-> So when I look at the wall, part of my mind can see how light the colour of green is next to the window, and how dark the green is next to the corner of the wall. But the other part of my mind that knows what colour the wall is. That part is going to give me second doubts and pull me back from trying to paint highlights that stray too far away from that midtone colour by making me feel that they look ‘wrong’. That part of my mind is also the part that tends to be in charge for many day to day activities, so it’s really hard for the part of my brain that accurately sees the correct highlight colour to override the part that knows what colour the wall is. Or to put it in a different way, we spend so much time listening to the part of our mind that knows how things are that we have trouble trusting the part of our mind that more accurately sees things and using that in our art.

I don’t know if I’m explaining it very well, but this is why you have to fight yourself sometimes when you’re painting. First you have to push out of your current comfort zone and be willing to paint with more contrast. And as you do that, you also have to fight the part of your brain that is telling you what you’re painting looks wrong.

This is a similar idea to the principles and exercises of the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Many of the same issues affect our ability to use colour and value to best effect in our art, it’s not just about literal drawing. I mention that book because I suspect many will have at least some experience with it, but a book I would recommend as much or more is Your Artist’s Brain: Use the right side of your brain to draw and paint what you see – not what you think you see by Carl Purcell. Both of these books help explain what’s going on in our minds that can lead to things like the very common situation that we like miniatures other people paint that use quite a lot of contrast, but we have a lot of difficulty using that level of contrast on our own figures.

If you are already familiar with this idea and successfully pushing your contrast, keep reading for the advanced credit version of this post. Or skip to the bottom for a photo that isolates the main colours and values in the picture, and also links to more information on why you need to paint with more contrast, and some methods to actually do it.

Window light 3 cropSame view, but with some additional objects.

Once you start to get more comfortable with painting a more dramatic effect of lighting, the next step is to consider how different types of surfaces and textures are affected by the light, and attempt to render more of that in your painting.

Above is a view of the room scene that includes additional objects. The wall paint is an eggshell finish. The lampshade is a smooth shiny plastic, and the neck of the lamp is a dull metal. Notice that each of these surfaces reacts to the light in a much different way. The bright areas of highlight are smaller and much more sharply delineated from the midtones and shadows on the lamp than they are on the wall. There is a gentle transition from light to dark on the wall, whereas the light and dark areas appear in sharper bands on the lampshade and lamp neck.

The water sprayer and the fabric piece at the bottom of the photo appear much more evenly lit than either the lamp or the wall. They are made up of more matte materials than the wall paint or the lamp. You can see a subtle edge highlight on the fabric piece, and shadows on the white head of the sprayer, but the effect of light and shadow is not as dramatic.

Two things to note about the water bottle and fabric piece. One is that I would exaggerate the light and shadow on those objects if I were painting this scene on a miniature scale. It would be necessary to do so simply because of the smaller scale. Two, this is also an example of how photographs do not exactly capture real life. (And that I’m no great photographer or photo editor.) I adjusted the exposure and it’s a lot better than what I started with, but both objects appear much lighter in the photograph than they do looking at this scene in person. 

In the final photo below I have isolated the colours from several areas of the photograph so you can see their exact values. It is very likely that you interpreted some of these values as darker or lighter than they actually appear. This is another thing our eyes/brains do that can lead us astray in creating art! Note that the only true white in the following photo is on the captions for what each of the arrows point to. The background behind the text is neutral gray. So both of those give you points of comparison in judging the value of the isolated colour squares.

Window light labels cr 600

Links to Previous Articles on Contrast

More and less contrast demonstrated on the same figure.

Visual comparison of more and less contrast and lining on the same figure and between two figures.

Contrast versus Realism, and Why You Should Choose Contrast.

How to Paint with More Contrast Part I: Mindset.

How to Paint with More Contrast Part II: Visualizing Light and Methods of Paint Application.

Example of using lighting reference photo, then rough colour block-in, then details and refining on Caerindra Thistlemoore.

Example of using value mapping/grayscale (and freehand practice) on Sophie 2018.

Example of using value mapping/greyscale, then rough colour block-in, then details and refining on Dragon and Stocking.

Using a lighting reference photo, and the difference between cast and form shadows.

NOTE: Links are provided solely for the convenience of readers, I don’t have any affiliate links or anything like that.

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