Three Sources of Light in Outdoor Scenes

Armand Cabrera

The three sources of light outdoors are the primary light source of the sun, the secondary light source of ambient or sky light and the tertiary source of reflected light. Painting outdoors people tend to pay attention to the primary light source in a scene and maybe some reflected light but rarely do people include all three sources. If you spend a little more time observing before painting, you will see the effects of all three giving your paintings that sense of light that we all seek as painters.

These three light sources really affect the illusion of form and that is what makes their inclusion so important to a painting. The aspects of light are its direction, its hue and its strength. Because of their relative strength compared to the sun, reflected light and ambient light have their greatest affect on shadows. Painting them correctly requires sensitive observation and an understanding of the form principle. This principle uses the abstract concept of geometric forms as the bases for any complex object. The idea is once you understand how light affects these simple geometric abstractions you can use that information to help you see the affect in the more intricate elements in nature.

The first thing to look for is the direction of the light source. Ambient light or sky light is easy since it comes from the sky. Reflected light is a little trickier so remember this idea

Any object that has light falling on it becomes a source of light itself

This will help you to first look for reflected light within shadows or other areas and determine the direction of the light. Once this is understood you can paint the objects planes that are facing the source.

Overcast Light

Armand Cabrera

An overcast day loses the direct light source of the sun and with it, most reflected light. When the sun is occluded by clouds or fog this leaves the scene with only ambient light or sky light. The difference is that this light is more neutral than on a sunny day when the color of this light is blue shifted from the sky color without clouds. In this type of lighting the objects have localized shadows and a tint from the cloud cover. Shadows tend to be warmer than they would be in full sunlight. The saying ‘cool light warm shadows’, applies here and can be used to great effect in this type of scene.


Color transitions are softer with subtle hue shifts and saturation shifts. Geometric planes are harder to discern. The direction for this light is top down as in most outdoor ambient light situations and the shadows have softer transitions. The lack of reflected light causes objects to darken in value toward their under planes continuously.

A full range of values is possible for overcast days but the light is shifted to the top planes and objects are dominated by local color with no strong light source to alter them. The light plane, upright plane and the shadow planes are closer together than they would be for objects in direct sunlight.

These kinds of days offer a longer period of time to paint from life because of the lack of a strong light source lessens the directional effect on shadows. More time allows for a more careful selection of the motif to maximize the pictures effectiveness as an overcast day painting.

Painting Moonlight

Armand Cabrera

Painting moonlight is not something people do much these days but I thought I would address the lighting effects from moonlight anyway. Moonlight is really strong reflected light and because of its weaker source, moonlight appears very cool to our eyes. Like ambient light, you lose the reflected light from other surfaces. The exception is in snow, where a strong enough phase of the moon with a clear sky will give you some reflected light, depending on the angle to the viewer.

The whole value scale is squeezed down to two thirds of the full normal value range. Edges lose their crispness compared to daylight situations and because of these lower values most hues have lower saturations. The cool light, warm shadows adage works well here too. Many painters start with a warm compliment wash of a deep red or yellow before painting the rest of the scene.

In a moonlit sky the light spreads out in prismatic order, this is especially apparent when clouds or fog is present and can add a dramatic effect if you are skilled enough to capture it.


One of the problems with painting at night is, it’s hard to find a good enough light source to paint by. I wear a head lamp that is used for camping and I have a barbecue light I can attach to my painting rig for my palette. It has a c-clamp style base and works well with all my various setups; French easel, pochades or A-frame easel. This way I can have light on my painting and palette at the same time, although I won’t be making any best dressed lists in this getup.

The biggest challenge of painting at night is finding a safe location that allows you to paint but won’t get the cops called on you. Most people think you’re pretty weird when standing around in one place with a headlamp on. If you get too far away from people, you run the risk of being harassed by the lower elements of society.

Too much blue in moonlight scenes seems to make them less effective than if an artist orchestrates his colors and shifts them to the cool end of the spectrum still retaining the reds and yellows and greens with less saturation and lower values. The form principle still applies in moonlight so shadows shift temperature from the lights. Moonlight is directional like sunlight, so the light, even though much weaker than the sun, is not top down and flat as the light on an overcast day.

Paintings in this article from top to bottom, Charles Rollo Peters, Knud Andreassen Baade, Frank Tenney Johnson, George Sotter, George Sotter, Frederick Remington

Sunrise and Sunset Lighting

by Armand Cabrera

I am defining Sunrise/ Sunset paintings as images where the sun is placed in the picture. These situations are more difficult to pull off and the approach needed is counter intuitive to the way a painter normally handles an outdoor sketch.

Sunrise and Sunset painting are the two extreme situations of lighting that are the most tantalizing for the outdoor painter and they are the situation we all try eventually. Personally I think painting a scene with the sun it, unobstructed by anything, is an impossible task. Even paintings by my favorite artists of this subject fall short, in my eyes.

A much more effective approach is to have a scene facing the sun with its orb blocked or partially blocked by some object or meteorological phenomenon. These scenes are possible and there are many fine examples of them in the history of representational painting.
There are two general ways to approach these kinds of scenes. The first is to focus on the contrast between sky and land, relinquishing strong color for one or the other major elements and relying heavily on strong values of light and dark.

The second way to approach this subject is to key the values and color to a narrower range to heighten the overall effect of light in the scene. Both of these approaches take skill to execute effectively. The composition and the design of these scenes take on a higher degree of importance to coordinate all of the elements successfully.

Making the scene brighter around the sun requires to raise the saturation of the paint, to make it look lighter you raise the value. Many painters confuse these aspects and their paintings suffer because of it. In these kinds of scenes you must lower the saturation and the value for the rest of the painting away from the sunlight.

In my opinion paintings that are keyed to a narrow tonal and hue range are more successful than ones that rely on full range contrast for the effect.

Paintings in this article from top to bottom are, Frederick Church, William Trost Richards,Peder Monsted, Thomas Moran, William Trost Richards, and Albert Bierstadt. All copyrights belong to the respective owners.

Knowledge versus Formula

by Armand Cabrera

As artists we constantly strive for truth and originality in our work but to do so requires many incidental pieces of knowledge, some experiential or practical and some theoretical or constructive.
The best painters use the knowledge they have obtained as an outline or guidepost for the efforts, many times adding their own unique perspective to age old fundamentals.
We must all beware of the trap knowledge brings which is a formulaic approach to painting. The phrase formula painter gets bandied about a lot, especially when someone hits their stride stylistically and makes some subject matter their own.
Many times it is used to marginalize the success of that painter as if the mere fact of their success has tainted the purity of the work. The painter has sold out in the eyes of their contemporaries.
In my mind it is not about success or having “made it” whatever that means. To me formula is less than a best attempt, where an artist will rely on convention and ability to get them through, but not breaking a sweat with the effort put forward. This is not tied to style or subject; many non-objective painters fall into this trap and in my opinion they do it more often than representational painters do.
I don’t really mind the exploration of a theme as Monet did with his haystacks or paintings of Rouen Cathedral where his focus was not so much the subject itself but the exploration of light and atmosphere and how that affects our perception some familiar thing. In these cases the motif is the anchor for the viewer and the different canvases challenge our experiences.
Some painters like John Fabian Carlson or Fritz Thaulow explored an area of the country over and over again but each time, the experience was captured with a fresh eye and keen observational skills. The unique experience of that time and place is what the painter was after.
The line is crossed though when nothing is being added to the original idea. There is no transition from one canvas to the next, except the movement of the pieces of the design. It becomes an endless assembly line of the familiar and the banal. The artist explores nothing but the tolerance of their audience to suffer through the same thing for as long as the artist can sell canvases.
A great artist keeps their fire and passion for their work, and while being human allows them some leeway in difficult times of their careers; overall, they approach each painting as a student, seeking knowledge and truth from the places they know and love. This is what makes great art.
Images for this article, first five, Claude Monet, next two John Fabian Carlson, last three Fritz Thaulow. All copyrights are wth the families or institutions that hold the paintings.