Painting Light And Shadow Tutorial

By: Mattias Snygg

This is a tutorial on how to paint the Royal Gala apple from Brazil. It's also a primer on light, and a little bit of everything. It's hard to pick a suitable subject for a tutorial, and apples is as good one as any.

 I used Photoshop CS for this tutorial, but the things discussed here apply to most other painting software. It's aimed toward the more advanced Photoshop user, in this one I assume you know how to get the software to do what you want. If you want to learn how to make custom brushes, or something else of a technical nature,  you should look somewhere else (pressing F1 in Photoshop is a good start).

1. Sketch

I grabbed an apple from the fridge and put it on my desk. Scribble-scribble and voilą! A line drawing.

2. Blocking in rough color

I created a new layer and set the layer blending mode to "Multiply". Now I could to anything on top of my drawing without risking losing the lines. I went to work on it with lots of different brushes, keeping the real apple in the corner of my eye. At this point I was only interested in the surface - no shadows yet. I tried to replicate the complex and interesting shifts in color that you can find on the skin of an apple, while still keeping it as lose and free as possible.

To a certain degree this picture is lying; there were lines going across everything when I did this. Only when I was more or less satisfied with how the apple looked did I clean up the areas around it with a flat beige.

3. Adding shadow

Here's where the cheating begins. I added yet another Multiply layer, on top of the first one. Then I picked a grey/green color (the tiny blob in the lower right) and painted on top of the apple.

Now all that nice detail from the initial painting is preserved, and I could easily change the shape of the shadow without altering the stuff behind it.

The shape of the shadow is just a rough estimate - there weren't any hard edges to the shadow on the real apple on my desk. At this point I just wanted to get an idea of the lights and darks.

4. Tweaking the darks

Here I started to play around with the shadow layer. I used the eraser and other soft-edged brushes to smooth out the edges of the shadow. Not everywhere though, there are still hard edges up where the little stick goes in as well as on the table (or what the hell that thing is sitting on).

Ah the benefits of working with layers!

Looking at the apple I noticed that the right edge was almost as bright as the part that was in direct light (the light bounced off the table and lit up a part that should have been in the shadow). I took this into account and carefully brightened the shadow.

5. Background meets foreground

Here's a real cheap trick. You see what I did with the background in the upper left? It's now darker than the lit face of the apple. And the background in the lower right is noticeably brighter than the shadowy part of the apple.

This is an easy way to create a bit of drama in a painting. The rule of thumb is to put a dark color next to a lit surface, and a bright color next to a shadowy surface. The old masters knew this, Rembrandt did it all the time, and it's still a very convenient (if a little predictable) method to add intensity to what you're doing.

The apple I painted didn't really look anything like this, but in a hundred years who's gonna care?

6. Highlights and we're done!

Well, not quite... Working with layers is all good and well, but there are significant drawbacks.

You don't see the "handmade mark" in a piece constructed with a lot of fancy effects. The trace of human will, the putting-brush-to-canvas-making-a-mark part is vital to any work of art, simply because we're human. I want to see the traces of someone's deliberate attempt to describe something, the absolute attention it takes to make a mark that really brings out the essence of... uh.. an apple for example.

To that end I flattened the image and let go of all the technical stuff. I tried to paint the apple, using what I had done so far as a color sketch. Not as a blueprint, but as a foundation for something else.

Not that it made much of a difference in this case, but the ambition was there.

Closing words

So is this method any good for doing other things than fruit and academic exercises? I don't know. I've used it quite a number of times for both personal and professional work, here's one example: Guts

My recommendation is to use any means necessary to get the ball rolling, while still keeping the image close and personal. For each computer-generated effect, 3D rendered perspective grid, or adjustment layer you put yourself one step further away from the painting. If finger-painting is the closest and most personal means of applying paint to a canvas (short of using your genitalia, but let's not go there) then using the computer already puts you at more than an arm's length from what you're doing. Every thought and impulse you wish to put into your work goes through a lot of filters; first the chunky, insensitive and crude drawing-tablet, after that your painting software makes an even cruder interpretation of what you want, and finally your monitor does its own thing with showing you color and shape that's at a horribly low resolution.

Add a bunch of fancy, prefabricated effects and you'll soon find yourself working like a scientist rather than an artist. Like working your canvas with the brush attached to a 2 meter pole. Or looking at it through half a dozen sheets of glass.

Some of this can't be helped if you want to use the computer for your art. Some of it is enormously enjoyable. But if you try to keep these things in mind you can save yourself a lot of grief, and hopefully create better art in the process.

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Copyright © Mattias Snygg.