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Elements of Art: Light

Author: Lucy Lamp

Use of light in art (actual light)

Actual light

There are a number of ways that light affects or interacts with artwork, from how a piece is lit, to deliberately incorporating the interaction of light within the work.

Lighting of artwork

Lighting of artwork is crucial to supporting the meaning of the artwork.  Strong lighting creates strong highlights and shadows, which enhances the physical form of the object.


Strong vs diffuse lighting: a comparison

Classical Greek and Roman figurative sculpture

The Doryphoros  Artist Unknown (Roman)     120-50 B.C.Pentelic marble after Polykleitos, Roman copy of Greek original, executed in bronze, c.440 B.C. one of four known extant copies 78 x 19 x 19 in. (198.12 x 48.26 x 48.26 cm)

Minneapolis Institute of Arts; The John R. Van Derlip Fund and Gift of funds from Bruce B. Dayton, an anonymous donor, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Dayton, Mr. and Mrs. W. John Driscoll, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Harrison, Mr. and Mrs. John Andrus, Mr. and Mrs. Judson Dayton, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Keating, Mr. and Mrs. Pierce McNally, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Dayton, Mr. and Mrs. Wayne MacFarlane, and many other generous friends of the Institute

Strong lighting is often used with classical Greek and Roman sculptures of the human body. Portrayal of the human body as a harmonious, balanced figure with idealized proportions is an important aspect of classical sculpture, which reflects the ideology of the culture. The ideal human figure is a metaphor for calm, ordered restraint and discipline. Strong lighting reveals the contours of the figure and emphasizes its physicality.



Ancient Egyptian figurative sculpture

Striding male figure  Egyptian    300-30 B.C.
Red granite      57 x 18 1/2 x 17 1/2 in. (144.8 x 47.0 x 44.5 cm)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts            Gift of Anonymous Donors

This Egyptian sculpture is lit with more diffuse lighting, which means the light on the object is more spread out, minimizing shadows and contrasts and making the object appear flatter.This is different from using spot lighting, which is more direct, creating strong contrast and shadows. 

Diffuse lighting minimizes the physicality and contours of the body, and accents its stiff pose. This reflects the ancient Egyptian emphasis on immovable permanence and immortality.



Ancient West African (Ife) portrait heads

Shrine Head   Ife 12th-14th century
12 1/4 x 5 3/4 x 7 1/4 in. (31.1 x 14.6 x 18.4 cm)
from Nigeria, Western Africa

Minneapolis Institute of Arts   The John R. Van Derlip Fund

From the museum website: "Between the 12th and 14th centuries, the royal city of Ife, in present-day Nigeria, was a center of economic, religious and political power, and its importance was reflected in a highly developed and distinctive sculptural style. Portrait heads modeled in terracotta or bronze stood on royal shrines in the palace compound. This head probably represents a woman of the royal court. The delicate lines on her face show a pattern of scarification, the cutting of designs into the skin to mark identity, status and beauty. The sensitive realism of this portrait is unusual among African art styles which typically present abstracted and generalized representations of the human image. Works of art from Ife are very rare. This superb creation is one of only three in American museum collections". source:
It almost seems as if this portrait head is alive and breathing, as if it might come to life at any moment. This is a realistic portrait of a real person. The lighting of the sculpture is not as strong as the lighting of the idealized  figure of the Doryphorous, but not as diffuse as the lighting of the stiff Egyptian figure. The lighit on the portrait head is strong enough to clearly reveal and emphasize her delicate facial features, yet not so strong that it overwhelms the graceful countours of the head.



Using shadows in the lighting of artwork

Peter Forakis  Hyper-Cube   1967          aluminum
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Image Copyright: Courtesy Walker Art Center
Object Copyright: Copyright retained by the artist

The lighting of this sculpture enhances its geometric qualities by using a strong spot light that casts a distinct shadow. In works like this, the interplay between object and shadow adds complexity to the object and depth to the meaning of the work.






How light might interact with artwork


"Sacred" Light: Hagia Sophia

Interior view facing east    Istanbul, Turkey

designed by Isidore of Miletus, Anthemius of Tralles   building begun 532, completed 537

L 82 m (269 ft)    W 73 m (240 ft)    H 55 m (180 ft)   ashlar brick

Currently a Museum, formerly an Imperial Mosque (1453–1931) and Roman Catholic Cathedral (1204–1261); originally constructed as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral (562–1204, 1261–1453).,

image source: Tesla Memorial Society of New York Website



View from the south     Istanbul, Turkey

image source: Tesla Memorial Society of New York Website

Hagia Sophia ("Holy Wisdom" ) is a structure that was built and intended as a sacred site, and has a long history of both Christain and Muslim use. The light that streams into the interior of the building has an ethereal, other-worldy quality, which enhances its sacred history. The use of gold in the interior is symbolic (in many religious traditions gold represents the divine), and it is highlighted by the strong light flowing into the building.

The exterior lighting, shown here at both night and day time, is also dramatic. The night lighting is strong and it emphasizes the contours of the facade, giving it a powerful presence. The daylight seems to have a golden quality, and it is enhanced by the color of the building's ashlar brick.




The effect of light at different tmes of day: James Turrell, Skyspace


James Turrell  Skyspace at Live Oak Friends Meeting House, Houston

Image Courtesy of PBS Art21 Website


Skyspace augmented by colored electric light.
Photo: Joe Aker

image source:

James Turrell works with light. He meshes science with visual art in in a memorable, almost magic way. Skyspace was designed to provide a meditative experience.  The space changes dramatically at different times of day and at night. The sky is framed in order to provide the optimum effect of the changing light.  Turrell has designed other skyspaces around the world.




Use of light as a deliberate aspect of artwork


Newgrange, Ireland:  the Solsitce

Newgrange, eastern Ireland  circa 3100 -2900 BCE

Photo taken 25 June 2003 copyright Richard Gallagher.

Uploaded by Popsracer

 Newgrange is a prehistoric site constructed during the during the Neolithic period, around 3100 - 2900 BCE. It consists of a large mound, 250 feet across and 40 feet high, covering one acre of ground, built of alternating layers of earth and stones. Grass grows on top and the facade is made of white quartz stones.

image source: Newgrange

Inside the mound is a chambered passage, 60 feet long, about a third of the way into the center of the mound. There is an opening in the entrance to the passage. At two times out of the year, the summer solstice and the winter solstice, liight travels the length of the passage and lights the chamber area at the end of the passage. There is much debate as to the purpose of the monument, but its sophistication and scientific understanding are unquestioned.

William Frederick Wakeman Sketch of a cross section of the Newgrange passage    1900

Screen capture of PDF version of the 1903 edition converted into black and white and adjusted for contrast and brightness.Wakeman's handbook of Irish antiquities (1903). p. 85.



Illuminated manuscript: turning the page

Illuminated manuscripts contain gold or silver leaf, and are meant to catch the light as the pages are turned, thus "illuminating" the page. It is almost impossible, in a photograph, to capture the dramatic and surprising effect of the gold and silver catching the light as the page is turned.  

Gold was used in manuscripts and paintings to represent the divine. The stunning effect of the illumination as pages are turned seems to be a reminder of the constant and omniscient presence of God.


Folio 4 verso of the Aberdeen Bestiary. 1542  The illumination shows the Christ in Majesty.

A bestiary is a manuscript with short descriptions of  animals, real and imaginary, birds, and rocks, accompanied by a moralizing explanation.




The illuminated letter P in the Malmesbury Bible.    1407    Blackletter script

hand written in Belgium by Gerard Brils

Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England

Taken by Adrian Pingstone in February 2005 and released to the public domain.




Hall of Mirrors: Versailles, the palace of the "Sun King"

  The Hall of Mirrors,   Château de Versailles, France   

constructed between1678-1684, during King Louis XIV's third building campaign   architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart image source:


King Louis XIV took the sun as his personal emblem; hence he is known as the Sun King. He had one of the longest reigns of any European monarchy--seventy-two years. Through his building campaigns he transformed a simple hunting lodge into the Château de Versailles, one of the world’s largest palaces. He moved the court and government of France to Versailles in 1682.

The Hall of Mirrors is the most popular site at Versailles. It is the largest room in the Château. Seventeen mirrors face seventeen windows looking out over the massive gardens. Each of the arches in the room contain 21 mirrors, bringing the grand total of mirrors used in decorating the room to 357. Many ceremonies of the French court took place in the Hall of Mirrors.

The use of gold leaf in the decoration and the huge crystal chandeliers magnify the amount of light within or reflected by the room. Walking through the Hall is a memorable and powerful experience, representing the glory of the Sun King's legacy.



Use of light in art: reflections

Reflections are like magic in some ways. They transform a space in dramatic ways and make it appear infinitely larger, depending on the placement of reflective surfaces such as mirrors.


The ladies' room on the tenth floor of Macy's (formerly Dayton's),  Minneapolis

photo by Lucy Lamp



Use of Mirrors: Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama  Infinity Mirrored Room, Rain in Early Spring 2002

Contemporary Art Museum Kumamoto, image courtesy of CAMK


Yayoi Kusama Fireflies on the Water   2002

installation with 150 lights, mirrors and water 115 by 144 by 144 inches   Whitney Museum of American Art    

purchased with funds from the Postwar Committee and the Contemporary Committee and partial gift of Betsy Wittneborn Miller

Yayoi Kusama has a remarkable ability to transform a space, as if it has become a doorway into another dimension. (She is able to do this within her two-dimensional work as well).  The space might be small and humble, but by the time she is finished, it has become infinite. Kusama did a series of what she called infinity mirrored rooms. Each mirror is strategically placed to create the effect of space going on forever, using the concept of the infinity mirror.  Kusama's infinite space, however, surrounds the viewer on all sides. The effect is enchanting, almost supernatural.




Reflecting Pools: Sites of Serenity

Water is often used in gardens and other sites to create a sense of peace, calm, and serentity. Water has a naturally soothing effect on people, and the depth of a reflection within a pool creates an opportunity for contemplation.  Like Kusama's mirrored rooms, refelcting pools offer a space to retreat from the real world for awhile, and to return in a refreshed state of mind.


Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool

Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Washington DC

image source

The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool reflects more than the Washington Monument; it is a reminder of the many historic events that have taken place there, and a symbol of the principles upon which the American government was founded. The pool is over a third of a mile long, and situated in the Constitution Gardens, between the Lincoln and Washington memorials.

Events that have taken place there include the 1939 concert--attended by 75,000 people--by Marian Anderson,  who, because she was African American, was not allowed to perforn in Constitution Hall; the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther KIng Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech to over a quater of a million people; and the 2009 Obama Inagural Celebration.



The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal   Agra, India

constructed 1632-1648   Architect: Ustad Ahmad Lahauri

source  Rajiva Wijesinha  Blog at

The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. The site has become a symbol of eternal love. The building is surrounded by 980 square feet of gardens. One of its distinguishing features is the long reflecting pool which mirrors the granduer of the resplendent memorial.



The Alhambra

The Alhambra, Granada, Spain  Photo by Lucy Lamp

One of the many delightful pools and water elements of the Alhambra comples in Granada, Spain is this pool reflecting the main structure.



Lake Superior, Minnesota

Rocks by Lake Superior     photo by Lucy Lamp

Reflections found in unexpected places can transform an ordinary day into something extraordinary.



Two-dimensional illusion of reflection: Nordic painting

Eilif Peterssen (Norwegian)  Summer Night  1886
Oil on canvas, 133 x 151 cm
The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design - The National Gallery, Oslo.

from the exhibition A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910

at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, June 24 - September 2, 2007  exhibition organized by the Nordic National Galleries

image source


In this painting the beautiful night sky of a Norwegian summer is shown entirely in a reflection on a lake. Ironically, instead of looking up to see the sky, we must look down into the depths of the water. This causes us to see the night sky--and the depth of the water in a lake--in a new way.



Light as an artistic medium

Light as an artistic medium

Light is an epehermal natural element. Some artists find its evanescence full of possibilities for exploration, and use light itself as their medium. Like art that deals with time, the work can be transient, and the moment becomes more important than the preservation of the work.


James Turrell

James Turrell, who designed the skyspace at Live Oak Meeting House, is known as an artist who works almost exclusively with light, and often with light as it exists in the natural world. His largest project is Roden Crater in Arizona.

Roden Crater, Alpha Tunnel

image source:

From the website at "Roden Crater is an extinct volcanic cinder cone, situated at an elevation of approximately 5,400 feet in the San Francisco Volcanic Field near Arizona's Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon. The roughly 400,000 year old, 600 foot tall red and black cinder cone is being turned into a monumental work of art and naked eye observatory by the artist James Turrell. Working with visual phenomena that have interested man since the dawn of civilization, the Roden Crater project will bring the light of the heavens down to earth, linking visitors with the celestial movements of planets, stars and distant galaxies. In addition to exploring the interplay of light and space in his art, Turrell has looked closely at the design of ancient observatories as places for visual perception:

I admire Borobudur, Angkor Wat, Pagan, Machu Picchu, the Mayan pyramids, the Egyptian pyramids, Herodium, Old Sarum, Newgrange and the Maes Howe. These places and structures have certainly influenced my thinking. These thoughts will find concurrence in Roden Crater.

(James Turrell, Fundacion NMAC)."

Below is a link to the website; it is worth checking out.


James Turrell  The Light Inside

site-specific installation of neon lights, gypsum board, plaster, and glass  1999, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

image source:,_Site-specific_installation_of_Neon_light,_gypsum_board,_plaster,_and_glass_by_James_Turrell,_1999,_Museum_of_Fine_Arts,_Houston.JPG

This work consists of several spaces in which the the viewer walks through and becomes 'drenched" in colored light. Each space is a different color. Imagine experiencing color in this way, as a pure experience. The effect is other-worldy and transcendent.



Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin    untitled (to Barnett Newman to commemorate his simple problem, red, yellow and blue)  1970    National Gallery of Art
Gift of the Barnett & Annalee Newman Foundation in honor of Annalee G. Newman, and the Nancy Lee and Perry Bass Fund

Dan Flavin is another artist who works almost exclusively with light. His works often occupy odd spaces in buildings, such as the space under a stairway or an out of the way corner. In this way he couples light with architecture and calls attention to the spaces we often ignore.



Rebecca Horn

Rebecca Horn, Mother-of-pearl Spirits 2002

Site specific installation       Piazza del Plebiscito, Naples, italy

333 cast iron skulls, 77 circular neons  

sponsored by Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina Napoli, Naples, Italy  

image source:

"Rebecca Horn [Michelstadt, Odenwald 1944] lands in Naples to try her hand at the monumental space of piazza del Plebiscito. Mostly known for the body extensions of her early performances in the 1960s, in the following decades the German artist dedicates herself to the construction of kinetic sculptures and big installations in places of particular historical or political relevance. Her unique ability to interpret the character of a place or of a people produces “Spirits of mother-of-pearl”, that turns Piazza del Plebiscito into a field of magnetic energy between heaven and earth, body and soul, life and death. Using formal elements that have their roots in the cult of the dead, with its religious and superstitious significance typical of the Neapolitan tradition, and in a vernacular mysticism in which past and present are closely related, Horn gives a visible and spectacular shape to the complex dialogue between two parallel worlds: a secret and underground one, and a worldly one."  Statement  of Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina Napoli

After reading about Rebecca Horn's installation and interpretation of it by the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina Napoli, consider: what part does light play in the meaning of this artwork? How does it enhance not only the intentions of the artists, but the site itself?



Tribute in Light, Ground Zero, New York City

Tribute in Light    memorial art installation in remembrance of the events of September 11, 2001

88 searchlights placed next to the site of the World Trade Center to create two vertical columns of light  It initially ran as a temporary installation from March 11 to April 14, 2002  

Creative team members: architects John Bennett and Gustavo Bonevardi of PROUN Space Studio, artists Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda, architect Richard Nash Gould, and lighting designer Paul Marantz. Production support provided by The Municipal Art Society and Creative Time, with the assistance of Battery Park City Authority.

Photo taken from Liberty State Park, N.J., Sept. 11, the five-year anniversary of 9/11. U.S. Air Force photo/Denise Gould.  ||


What is the significance of using light as a memorial for 9/11? How does the light function--symbolically--and how does it work as a memorial to those who lost their lives?


Implied Light

Implied light in two dimensions

As with other art elements, two-dimensional art must rely on creating an illusion of light. In the physical world we sometimes see actual beams of light; more often, however, we "see" light by seeing its opposite: shadows. One way to create an illusion of light is to use shadows, or variations in value (light and dark) within the work.

Another way we see light is by seeing its effect on objects. For example, a flourescent light illuminates a person's face in a different manner than an incandescent light does. Flouresecent lighting tends to give it a greenish, unnatural quality.

Light in art can be implied in natural ways--how we experience it in the physical world--or the artist can invent their own way of using light, which is not limited by its natural physical properties.

Take some time to study light--all kinds of light--and its effect on objects. Try to analyze what it does, and what it really looks like. Light is an element that can be very tricky, because we often assume we know what it looks like. Then when attempting to use it as an element in art we find ourselves frustrated at not being able to get it right. All it takes is some time to study light, every kind, all times of day, etc. For example, we may think we know what a green apple will look like under different types of light---and that it will always look green--when in fact it may not look green at all.

What color is water? You might say blue, and sometimes it is, but water is mostly a reflection of the sky and atmosphere. How would you portray a clear glass? What color would you make it? Take some time to look at a clear glass and water and see that there are really many colors there.  See how many you can find.



Light: Evidenced by Shadows and Highlights

One way to create the illusion of light is to use shadows.In this way you can also imply the time of day.


photo by Lucy Lamp

A sundial works by using shadows




Shadows cast by the sun at different times of day




Adding dimension to an object by adding highlights and shadows



photo by Lucy Lamp

Shadows and highlights in a photograph imply a source of light







Rembrandt Van Rijn The Hundred Guilder Print (Christ Preaching),ca. 1649

The Hundred Guilder Print 
Etching, drypoint and burin, on Japanese paper
11 1/16 x 5 5/16 in. (28.1 x 38.9 cm, trimmed just inside plate line)

Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberrlin College, Ohio   B., Holl. 74; Hind 246 ii/ii  Mrs. F. F. Prentiss Bequest, 1944

Rembrandt was a master of a diverse range of printmaking processes. In this print, several processes are combined. This allows for both crisp lines and soft lines, and areas of velvety darkness.  If you could see the actual print you would see that variations in value (light and darkness) are created through the use of intersecting lines.  This is called crosshatching.

Notice the extreme range of value--from blinding brightness to shadowy darkness. This adds a sense of drama to the scene. The source of light creating such drama appears to be emanating from the figure of Christ, although there is a suggestion of some source to the left of the picture plane.

The image represents several episodes described in chapter 19 of the Gospel of Matthew, in the New Testament. Think of the meaning of this print. What was the artist's intent? How does his use of light contribute to his intent and enhance the meaning of the artwork?





Chiaroscuro refers to a technique used to create a sense of volume in two dimensional art..  The technique employs the use of strong contrasts between light and dark in modelling three-dimensional objects, such as the human body.  Chiaroscuro also refers to bold contrasts of light and dark within a  whole composition.

Chiaroscuro--the use of strong contrasts in light--adds a sense of drama to an artwork. Combining strong contrasts between light and dark with the use of diagonals gives it even more drama. The Baroque period in Europe was known for such dramatic uses of light and dark.


Geertgen tot Sint Jans Nativity at Night  c. 1490 (after a composition by Hugo van der Goes of c. 1470)

34 × 25 cm         National Gallery

Source/Photographer The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

In this painting there are three sources of light: the infant Jesus, the shepherds' fire on the hill, and the angel who appears to them. By far the strongest light radiates from the infant. Why would the artist incorporate those particular sources of light?



Symbolic use of light

Light is often used symbolically.  Light symbolizes so many different things in the world that the symbolic meaning of light must be considered within an artwork that uses light as a primary element.

Joseph Wright of Derby A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery, in Which a Lamp is Put in Place of the Sun (sometimes called simply The Orrery) c 1766  oil on canvas

image source:

This painting idealizes the philosophies of the Enlightenment in its use of subject matter--a scholarly lecture about the solar system, representing its emphasis on new scientific discoveries. Ironically, the lecture is about a source of light--the sun--and a lamp as its symbolic representation. The dramatic illumination of the figures symbolizes the light of rational knowledge replacing the light  of religious guidance (light sources that include God, Christ, the angels and the saints).

Contrast the symbolic use of light in the Sint Jans nativity with the Wright painting. Where is the light coming from? What sources are creating the light? In each work, what does the light symbolize? How does the use of light suport the artists' intentions?




Expressionistic use of light


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec  At the Moulin Rouge

Oil on canvas123 x 141 cm  

Art Institute of Chicago   Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection

This painting is another example of dramatic lightiing. What is the quality of this light? Is it warm and glowing? Cold and flat? Natural or unnatural? Where and what is the source of this light?

Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from childhood injuries that crippled his legs. Because of his appearance he often felt alienated from others. One place that he felt comfortable in--comparatively-- was the Moulin Rouge, a Parisian nightclub. You can imagine the noise and bustle of the club, and the mood of people enjoying a night out. However, Toulouse-Lautrec's version of the Moulin Rouge feels edgy, almost eerie. The use of light creates that sense of uneasiness.

There is a sense that the viewer is separated from the action of the painting, left out. The light has a cold green cast to it, which enhances a feeling of uneasiness, and the massiveness and positioning of the bar itself serves as a device to prevent the viewer from entering in to the scene.

Toulouse-Lautrec worked during the time following the Impressionist movement and during the beginnings of the Expressionist movement. An aspect of expressionism is to use color in an expressionistic manner. This means using colors that express how the artist feels rather than the actual color of the object (local color). In this painting, that can be clearly seen in the way the face of the figure on the right is illuminated.



Drama of life reflected in a dramatic sky


Thomas Cole The Voyage of Life: Old Age, 1842

Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art, Utica     Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
 image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

Thomas Cole was a master of landscape painting. He spent a lot of time in the landscape, and his understanding and knowledge of the sky and weather is evident in his paintings. He painted the glory of the American landscape, and he also used landscape metaphorically, as in this series about the journey of life from youth to old age. How has he used light to illustrate his thoughts about life? What does the drama and the grandeur of the sky reveal about his beliefs and values? How many different colors and shades of colors can you see in this sky?





Portraying the physical qualities of light

Todd Ford  Broken Bottle V

Oil on Canvas20" x 20"

Lovetts Gallery Tulsa, OKItem Number: 104218

Is Ford's use of broken glass simply an exploration of how the quality of light changes on broken glass, or does the broken glass have a deeper meaning?

The artist has enlarged the size of the bottle to at least twice its actual size. In addition, he has portrayed only part of the bottle, and minimized any background or contextual details. This positions the viewer uncomfortably close to the bottle fragment, and forces the viewer to focus on the broken glass. In contrast the subtle changes in light and its warm color tones give it a sense of welcoming beauty, thus drawing the viewer in.

The result is a push-pull effect. We are drawn in because of the beauty and warmth, yet when we see the jagged edges of the glass, we recoil a bit.

Technically the painting is a masterful portrayal of glass and implied light. Take a few moments to study how the artist has done this. You would know this object to be a brown glass bottle. In the painting--and in reality--a simple brown bottle has many colors, and light shining through the glass gives it even more. Study the painting and see how many different colors the artist uses to portray a brown bottle. Then notice the highlights on different parts of the bottle, especially the rim. Highlights are places where light hits surfaces of the object. These areas help to define the form of the object and are usually portrayed in two-dimensional art as varying hues of white.



1. Find several works of art that appear to have light as a central element. (Or, just choose several works of art that you really like). You can do this by browsing online, finding books at the library, or visiting a museum or gallery. 

For each of the artworks, ask yourself:

  • What is the source of the light? Can you tell what the inteneded source of light is, or does it seem to come from an unseen source?
  • What direction is the light coming from?  Does it come from a something that you can see within the image, or is it coming from some place beyond the picture plane?
  • What type of light is it; what are the qualities of the light? Is it a warm light or a cool light? Is it flat, or glowing? What color is the light?
  • Is the lighting strong and does it create dramatic shadows and highlights? Or is the lighting flat, creating even tones throughout the image?
  • Consider the artist's intent for the artwork.  Why would the artist use the type of lighting, qualities of light and source of light that you see in the work? Consider the subject matter, the meaning behind the work, and how the artist might want you to feel as you experience the work.
  • Does the artist's use of light effectively support the meaning and intention of the work?

Take some notes on each one, compare the artworks with each other, and consider how this might enhance your own work.


2. Take a flashlight and go into a bathroom, or a room that has a mirror. Turn off the lights (do this at night so it will be dark). Shine the flashlight on your face from different angles: above, below, from the side.  Notice the difference in how your face looks, what the light reveals about the form and structure of your face. You can do this with objects too.


3. Go for a walk at different times lof day and notice the light. At dawn when it is just beginnming to get light, at midday, just before sunset, during the sunset, at twilight, in the moonlight at night. Also notice the difference in the colors and light of the sky.  You will find for example that the light just before sunset is a very intense gold, and that the sky at twilight is a midnight blue.



All photos Lucy Lamp