As regular readers of this site probably know, one of the things that I’ve been focusing on over the past couple of years is improving the lighting in my digitally-edited paintings. Or, more specifically, learning how to use one particularly cool style of lighting.
This is the kind of lighting that looks like something from a metal concert, the kind of lighting that looks like something from a film noir movie, the kind of lighting that looks like something from an “edgy”mid-late 1990s computer game, the kind of lighting that looks like something from the cyberpunk genre or the kind of lighting that you might see in an old sci-fi horror movie from the 80s or 90s.
In other words, lighting that really stands out. So, how do you create this kind of lighting?
1) It’s all about contrast: One of the principles I learnt when I was teaching myself the basics of how to make black & white monochrome art in 2014/2015 is that a good monochrome picture should consist of 30-50% black ink or black paint. If there isn’t enough, then the entire picture just looks “flat” and the lighter and/or shaded areas of the picture don’t stand out much.
Likewise, in 2016, I learnt that the easiest way to paint bright lights was to leave the centre of the light blank and to go around it with a gradually-darkening layer of whatever colour the light happens to be. Since the area around the centre of the light is slightly darker, it makes the centre of the light look brighter by comparison – like this:
As you can see, the centre of this monitor is white, whilst the green light from the monitor grows darker as it moves away from the centre of the screen.
So, why have I mentioned all of this? Well, it’s all to do with contrast. Lighting stands out best when it is constrasted with dark surroundings. After all, a neon sign might look really cool at night – but it would probably look faded and boring if you happened to turn it on during the day.
So, if you use dark or gloomy locations in your art, then the lighting is automatically going to stand out a lot more – like in this old painting of mine from last year that I’ve shown off numerous times before:
“La Chanteuse” By C. A. Brown 
2) Think logically and physically: I still have a lot to learn when it comes to painting truly realistic lighting. But, by knowing a few very basic principles, I’ve still been able to create dramatic-looking lighting nonetheless. Why? Because I’ve learnt how to think about lighting logically- and so can you.
This is all fairly basic stuff, but it’s important to remember that the lighting in your artwork has to come from somewhere. In other words, your painting should include at least a few obvious light sources (eg: neon signs, computer screens, spotlights, fairy lights etc..) and that these light sources should provide all or most of the light in your picture, just like in real life.
Likewise, you need to learn the basic principles of how light and shadow behave. This is really simple – just start by thinking of the setting of your painting as an actual three-dimensional thing (playing old 3D computer games can help you learn how to think about 2D images in 3D).
Once you’ve done this, then mentally draw straight lines radiating out from each light source – anything that these lines hit should be the same colour as your light (and anything on the opposite side of the things the lines have hit should be in shadow, unless it is being affected by another light).
If the light is brighter, the lines should be longer – if the light is dimmer, they should be shorter. Sound confusing? Here’s a detail from one of my digitally-edited paintings that will appear here in mid-July:
The full painting will appear here on the 16th July.
Now, here’s a modified version of the picture which shows how I worked out which areas each light source in the foreground of the painting would affect (even though, aside from some very basic shading techniques, I still don’t know how to paint things like faces being affected by light in a realistic way). Each major light source has brighter lines of the same colour radiating away from it and hitting anything nearby:
I’ve removed the background, lowered the saturation of the rest of the painting and added brighter light trails to the major light sources in the foreground. It isn’t perfect, but I hope that this example gives you at least a vague idea of what I’m talking about.
The trick is, of course, working out where to put the lights and how many of them to include. Whilst this is something that can only truly be learnt from practice and experimentation, a good way to start is to limit yourself to 1-2 light sources per painting until you get the hang of it.
3) Light colour: You might have noticed that many of the light sources in the example I just showed you are different colours, this is because one of the cool things you can do with lighting is to use it to add a bold colour scheme to your painting.
The easiest way to do this is to use a complementary colour scheme (or two of them ) when deciding what colour the light sources in your painting should be.
To find a complementary colour scheme, just look at a red/yellow/blue colour wheel. Colours that are directly opposite each other on the wheel will complement each other. Likewise, if you draw an equilateral triangle over the wheel, then the three colours at each point of the triangle will compliment each other too.
Of course, you can use slightly different colour schemes than this if you want to create a particular effect (eg: red and blue is perfect for things in the horror/sci-fi horror genre). But, if the lighting in your painting follows at least one complementary colour scheme, then it will instantly add some extra atmosphere to the painting.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂