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Painting the Illusion of Light, Part 3: Still Life Painting

Painting the Illusion of Light, Part 3: Still Life Painting

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The following is Part 3 of a series of guest blog posts on still life painting from expert painter Jane Jones, who often contributes to Magazine (read her feature articles here).

Part 3: Painting the Illusion of Light in a Still Life Painting

by Jane Jones

When you’re trying to create the illusion of light in a still life painting, value is your best friend! The right amount of value contrast can create a beautiful and convincing illusion of light. So first you have to determine the kind of light you want to paint….bright day, outdoors, cloudy day, indoors, natural, artificial, fire?

Getting the light and medium values is pretty easy; we see them really well, so they are the values that are straightforward. It’s the darks–the shadows–that are harder to commit to. The shadows are so important for creating light, but they’re dark and scary to paint. Yet they HAVE to be there for the illusion of light to happen. The more contrast there is in the values, the brighter the illusion of light will be in your painting.

To make the lights lighter, make the darks darker. It’s counterintuitive to think “dark” when you want light, but it works. Think about how the moon looks when you see it in the daytime. It’s sort of interesting; but at night, WOW! It’s gorgeous. Same moon! It’s the same lightness or value in the day and night, but the contrast with the DARK night sky makes it much more interesting. If there are a lot of lights to lighten the sky, then the moon looses some of its drama. Away from lights and on a cloudless night, it’s at its most dramatic. The DARK sky makes the moon look lighter. And it’s the same with painting…more darks can create more light.

Take a look at the image above. There are a lot of square inches of dark, which make the lights seem even lighter, and there’s a lot of contrast between light and dark to create the dramatic light in Silent Night.

But if the light you’re creating is less dramatic, as in a lit interior, or outdoors at mid-day, then your value contrast should be less.

The light in Peace Under the Western Sky (right) is bright mid-day sunlight and there was a lot of indirect light from the dome of the sky, so the shadows are cool and don’t have as much contrast with light areas as in Silent Night.

Sometimes your light areas need to be lighter, and that’s pretty straightforward to fix. But what if your light areas are white, titanium white out of the tube? (Titanium White is the lightest and most opaque of the white tube colors.) There isn’t a color lighter than that! But there is…the trick is to stack the lights. Add another layer to some or all of the lightest areas. This can add a quarter of a value to the lights. And if that’s not quite enough, do another layer. The change is subtle, but it’s there.

Also consider the brand of white paint you are using. If it’s student grade or a less expensive brand, then you won’t have as much pigment, and that will affect the quality of the light areas in your painting. With paint, most of the time, you get what you pay for, and if you pay more, you get more pigment.

I hope this series of articles about painting light will help you to create the great illusions that will add something special to your still life paintings.

Click here to read Part 1: Painting Illusions of Light: Setting Up
Click here to read Part 2: Considering Shadows in a Still Life Painting More

Bio: Jane Jones is an award-winning artist whose paintings have been featured in many magazines, including American Art Collector and Magazine. She is the author of Classic Still Life Painting. Painting is her passion, as is growing the flowers that she uses in her paintings.

Websites: and

Watch the video: Beginners Acrylic Still Life Painting Techniques demo - Part 2b (August 2022).