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.

Studio Tips Part 3 Lighting


Armand Cabrera

For a more in depth discussion of lighting see my previous post here. Lighting has the most impact on how your work is viewed. It is important you paint it in as close to a natural light setting as possible to give it the best chance in all the other places you may show it.  The first thing is to make sure you have enough light,

 I highly recommend spending the money to purchase some daylight fluorescent bulbs for your painting situation. They are efficient with power consumption, don’t output a lot of heat, relatively inexpensive and long lasting, (my bulbs last 30,000 hours).

You want them to give you enough light to cover your easel and palette at the same time. This usually means mounting them in the ceiling or high enough so they are not in your way. I use a four foot long four bulb ceiling fixture with T8 Lumichrome bulbs. Make sure the fixture is the correct size for the bulbs. The sizes are T5, T8, T10,T12 and then the length of the bulb 12, 24, 36, 48 inches or longer.

 If you work digitally proper lighting is still important for other reasons. Don’t depend on your monitor to be your light source. Make sure your desk setup has bright enough lighting to reduce eye fatigue.  Nothing will ruin your eyes faster than sitting in a dark room staring at a brightly lit monitor. Daylight bulbs are a good solution for digital workplaces also in that they help reduce Seasonal Affective Syndrome and improve overall mood, perception and energy levels. A desk lamp with daylight corrected bulbs is a good solution if you don’t have room for more overhead fluorescents.

Next week I will discuss studio ergonomics.