Reflected Light

Armand Cabrera

Reflected light is an important part of realistic painting. This is especially true when painting outdoors where direct light from the sun is so powerful. Bad landscape paintings have no reflected light or ridiculously exaggerated reflected light. No reflected light is a product of too much reliance on photographic reference material. The camera is lousy at capturing reflected light outdoors under most conditions. This is why photographs have overly black shadows. The range of light and shadow in most outdoor scenes is beyond the capabilities of most cameras. When painting from life it is important to be aware of the properties of reflected light and how they affect the scene you are looking at.

Anything that has direct light falling on it in a scene becomes a source of light itself.


You can prove this to yourself by going outside on a sunny day with a colorful object and placing it close to the shadow side of any other object, while the colorful object is still in sunlight. It will drastically alter the color of the shadow. If the object being lit is light enough and reflective enough it can even affect other objects in the sunlight.
Reflected light is never as strong as its source light
This is a problem for most beginners who tend to focus on color and are oblivious to value shifts. In most situations, reflected light belongs to the shadow and as such it must support, not compete with the lighted areas of your painting. While it can be effective to exaggerate the chroma of reflected light, raising its value too much will ruin the effect completely.

Reflected light is a combination of the local color of the object sending the light, the object receiving the light and the quality and color of the source light and ambient light in the scene.


As you can see once you have multiple sources of light like the sky and other objects, reflected light becomes a very unique phenomena dependant on all the other aspects of the scene. You can imagine that the combinations of colors these reflections will produce are not predictable. This is why direct observation and field studies are so important and can never be replaced by photographic reference alone.

7 thoughts on “Reflected Light

  1. Knowing it is there is half the battle. Using it correctly is the other half. Students (myself included) get excited about finding reflected light in shadows. So, we pump it up and like you've said, lose the effect.
    Most of what makes a painting beautiful is the skill and knowledge of the artist. Only experience can teach us what to include and how subtle we need to be. Getting past the excitement and adding the use of reflected light to our toolbox takes practice; lots of practice.

  2. I'm loving those rolling hills and snowy mountains, solid capture of the atmosphere (not that I was there.)Beautiful work.

  3. "Reflected light is a combination of the local color of the object sending the light, the object receiving the light and the quality and color of the source light and ambient light in the scene."

    Lovely. Why can't everything be this clear and concise?

  4. Hi, I have a question, not sure if this will get answer or not but I will give it a try. Does the reflected light ever at any time affect the illuminated side of an object and not just the shadow side?

    Thanks for this post, I will keep in mind about that information on cameras.

  5. Reflected light does affect the lit side of an object but since it is a weaker force its effects are still less than the primary light source. Because of this the more noticeable change it makes is usually to the color of the object and less to its value although both can be observed depending on the objects involved, their surface qualities and local color and the strength of the lighting.

  6. Looking at the post again, do you mean an object that is "….being lit is light enough and reflective enough…" will make a noticeable reflected light on the lit side of a nearby object?

    Does that mean when reflective surfaces like snow and metal are strongly lit, they will create a noticeable reflected light onto the lit side of another object?

    Do you usually paint in a hint of color change cause by less reflective surfaces onto another surface's lit side?

    I had always read reflected light only occur on the shadow side but it does make sense to me that it can occur on the lit side as well, even if it's not so noticeable. There is alot more to reflected light than I first thought… Thanks for the response!

  7. Like I said it depends on the specifics, the painter must observe it. I believe in painting it as you see it. How you see it depends on how observant you are and whether you decide its important to your statement to include the information.

    Snow and metal are not always reflective, so each situation is unique to those particular set of circumstances.

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