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How to Fudge a Light Source

Landscapes are beautiful all on their own, but adding a focal point like a figure or a creature can improve a painting. But how do you create a sense of light? If you just cut and paste the figure/creature and put it into the landscape it looks off-but there are ways to "fudge" the light so that it looks perfectly natural.

When adding a figure or a creature to landscape it's important to determine what direction the light is coming from in the landscape. Tell-tale signs are cast shadows and highlights.

In this photo, the sun is in the 10am position in the sky, or upper left.

Here the light source is not obvious. Look at the palm and you'll see a small shadow, and the highlights.

Here's a wonderful reference of a figure (reminds me of a Greek wood nymph exuberantly dancing in the field). Notice the play of light on the figure is from the upper right or 2pm position of the sun, behind her figure. You can see the warm light on her hair, dress, and the backs of her legs.

First we need to create a composition. How do we fit these elements into our picture plane? I'm using an 11x14 Ampersand Pastelbord in landscape format so I sketch a box on my paper with the same aspect ratio. I position the main components of the figure, palm and brightly colored Muhly weed. It's much better to make mistakes on the paper at this level than later on the painting where it will take expensive materials and time.

Note: Try to keep things from landing dead center. When this happens it stops the eye dead in the picture plane and traps it. Instead, position items so that they lead the eye around through the composition.

This value sketch should take no more than 10-15 mins and will give you an idea of how your idea will fit into the painting. You want to make sure it fills the page in a pleasing way. Once you understand the values in the painting, then you can add the light source to both the figure and the landscape. In this case it is easier to take the light from the figure and add it to the landscape, changing the cast shadow on the palm and the highlights on the trees.

Next, it's time to lay out the palette of colors. Notice that the colors of the landscape reflect onto the figure-especially on her dress. To take note of this, we will make a quick color study. This color study is a practice session where we "try out" colors and techniques to see what works best. Again, make mistakes at this level, rather than on the actual painting with tons of time and materials.

This sketch should be quick-only about 15 mins. As I use a color, I set it aside (in VIP seating, Very Important Pastel) as I will use it on the final painting. I try out difference colors for the grasses, pinks and violets for the flowers, and reds for the figure. Here's an idea of the colors I set aside:

Next, I sketch the landscape onto the surface and place the figure. Then I methodically paint from dark to light, and from big abstract shapes of color to smaller shapes, and finishing up with the details. You want to make sure the light is following the ideas of light logic, think about the logical way light would hit the forms in the picture plane.

Here's the mostly finished piece. Maybe a little touch up and it will be finished. Its worth it to do a few studies and try out the technique before doing larger pieces.

Wishing you much success in your painting!


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