How to Create Realistic Lighting Effects in Landscape Art

By Ron Mulvey 

This post talks about how to create realistic lighting effects in landscape art. I offer some exercises for artists, as well as discuss the difference between direct observation of light and the different colour effects needed to recreate that experience of light in art. 

lighting effects landscape art

Study water as it rushes over a particular rock and you will perceive three important light effects.

  1. Light comes from somewhere. It has a source.
  2. Light seems to be absorbed or it passes through or it bounces off a surface.
  3. Light is manifested as colour.

To bring a real light into your work you will need to have this perception of light as colour and then the necessary skill to interpret this perception with paint colours.

Let’s start with #1. “Light comes from some where.” If a light is shining on something we call that illuminating light and it will produce one of three effects depending on the nature of the thing. Once you identify the nature of the thing you will know how to produce the colour effect.

Light on a solid thing, a rock, tree building and so on is ‘absorbed ‘ and we call this surface colour. It translates into thicker, possibly more textured paint or what we call paint with body.Depending on the thing and its texture it will produce a shine or glisten or it will reflect light or it could glow like a pearl.

All these lighting effects have names but your job is to perceive them and translate them with painted colour. Think of the surface colour effect on a dry piece of grass as compared to the same illumination on a wet rock. Each produces a different light.

Study the difference and you will realize that each will need a particular handling of paint and attention to colour. The grass and the rock may be the same colour but not the same lighting effect.

Light that fills a space such as the sky or a shadow, is called film colour. It doesn’t translate well with thick paint. You can make a sky decorative using thick paint and accentuate its local colour and shape, but you will never capture its light nature unless you see it in it’s film nature.

Shadow effects are very similar. To capture them keep the paint filmy with some strong, strong surface paint accents. There are always some mixtures of thick and thin paint in skies and shadows but keep the filmy quality predominant.

Mists and fog should be treated as film paint. Use a thin to medium consistency. Think of veiling the paint and keep it semi-transparent. Film colour is always present in a landscape, look for it and translate it into a colour effect.

Light that passes through a thing is called volume colour. Liquids are a good example. For the camera, colour is colour but for the artist colour is effect.

A glass of red wine appears as red as a red hat to the camera lens but you must recognize that one red is a surface colour and the other is a volume colour. It is in the handling of the paint that will present the light quality of each thing. Study the light, identify the effect and observe the colour.

The more you see the more you can eliminate. Get down to the effect and forget about form and composition. After all, these are details of craft not perception.

Five colour in light exercises for landscape artists

#1 In the morning light concentrate on an object and it’s cast shadow on a wall or the ground. Look into the shadow area with half closed eyes. Forget about everything you know about colour harmony. Empty your critical mind and concentrate deeply on the shadow area. The shadow is Light.

Colour manifesting in the shadow surface creating depth and colour.  You will start to see a predominant hue infused into the shadow. If the object is blue an orange hue will be perceived in the shadow, its dominance will depend on the hue of the shadow surface. If the surface is of a yellow hue the orange will be quite apparent. If the shadow surface is green the effect will be different.

Keep looking into the shadow and not at the object. Then dart your eyes back and forth several times from the object to the shadow. Your perception will be heightened and you will come to an experience of coloured light. All the colour theory you can read will never give you the ‘experience’ of colour but once you have this experience your reading will make much more sense.

#2 In the evening light, look for that magical light that that makes colour rich and penetrating. Search out a tree or an object that is completely saturated with evening light, but make sure it is fully illuminated with the light source directly in front. The light will be hitting the subject.

Observe first what is around the subject. If it’s a tree trunk fully illuminated can you see to either side of the trunk? Do you see any ‘bouncing light’? Half close your eyes and you will perceive light bouncing radiating and vibrating at the edges of the subject.

Look and see what else you can discover. If your subject has any surface sheen or shine such as water or an apple in a tree the light dance will be more dramatic.

#3 In a shaded light by a source of water focus on the bottom of a creek river lake or even your bathtub if your stuck in the city. As you focus on the bottom you will experience a chromatic light effect. Keep your gaze on one spot on the bottom don’t look at the surface water.

After a moment or two focus on the surface water and the whole color effect changes. The surface is reflective and it has shadows wherever the water is moving. Since you can’t focus on two points at the same time you will have to paint two light effects on the same surface, one on top of the other.

#4 In the low light of dusk find a quiet space to observe the landscape. As you look out you will remember ‘No light no colour.’This is not entirely correct since there is always some light but this light at dusk is a very low illumination. Light values become darker and dark values become lighter. It is the grey zone. A perfect light to study grey. Look and you will discover that black and white are not a true grey when mixed together. Grey is colour but never a pure colour. Understanding grey is going to be one of your  best colour tools.

#5 Locking colour effects in your memory is essential and can be developed in a short time. Turner’s memory was so keen that he could bring to memory an effect he experienced years before. You may not be painting hours each day but your eyes are open most days so perceive the colour of light whenever you can.

How do I make the colour effects I see with paint?

Follow the exercises for one month and start reading this short list of books.

Colour Perception In Art  by Faber Birren,This book will show you how!

Colour Works, the Crafter’s Guide to Colour by Deb Menz.  This is a clear concise introduction to colour theory with brilliant examples. Get all those nasty colour words under your belt such as tone shade hue chroma low and major keys and on and on.

About the Artist 

Ron Mulvey is a contemporary landscape artist. You can browse his online art gallery here.



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