One of the most important decisions that I make during a portrait sitting is choosing the type of lighting that I want to use. Lighting helps to set the mood for a portrait and can be used as a design element within a painting.

In my last blog, I mentioned that I prefer to use a single, natural light source. When I talk about “natural light” (as opposed to artificial), I’m referring to daylight of some sort, whether it’s full sunlight outdoors, north light coming through a window, dappled light, direct light, indirect light, etc. We see a good majority of life through these lighting conditions, which also provides a familiar platform that viewers can easily recognize and relate to. By using a single light source, I find it easier to control the amount of light on my subject, as well as being able to more accurately predict how that light will change during the portrait sitting. This is important, especially if you’re after a very specific type of lighting on your subject.

Examples of what I would consider to be various “types” of lighting would be:

Direct Light – This refers to direct sunlight shining on your subject. This type of light creates a dramatic effect and often produces very distinct differences in both value relationships and edges as you transition from light to shadow.

Indirect Light – This refers to the soft, cool light that you see when standing in a shady area outdoors or viewing objects indoors under north light. The transitions from light to shadow are much more gradual. Beautiful subtle shifts in value and color temperature can be seen in this type of lighting.

Contre-Jour – This is one of my favorite types of lighting because it incorporates characteristics of both Direct and Indirect light. The term refers to a back lit lighting situation which produces a strong contrast in light coming from behind your subject while, at the same time, creates the subtle effects of indirect light in front. This type of light allows for an endless play of warm and cool temperature changes because of the narrow range of values that you are working in.


Example of a contre-jour lighting situation.

Since we’re on the subject of temperature changes, I’ll mention some differences between warm light and cool light. Direct sunlight would be considered a warm light source when compared to Indirect light. The reason for this is because anything in direct sunlight appears warmer in color because of the sun’s rays. As soon as you move from direct sunlight into a shaded area, the light appears to be much cooler. The reason for this is that the light source is then a result of the blue of the sky rather than the sun itself, giving you a much cooler appearance. This is an effect that the Impressionists noticed while observing nature and took full advantage of when creating the illusion of sunlight in their paintings.


Painting by Frank Benson. Notice the warm and cool temperature changes that occur. Everything in direct sunlight appears warmer as a result of the sun’s rays. Those areas in shadow appear to be cooler (with the exception of the warm light shining through the parasol and those areas of reflected light bouncing back up into the subject) because of the influence of the blue sky. The works of the Impressionist’s are great ones to study when it comes to the subject of color and how to employ warm and cool temperature changes into your own work.

Although there are always exceptions to the rules when it comes to nature, it’s interesting to note that more often than not, if you have a warm light source, then your shadows will be cooler in comparison. When you have a cool light source, the opposite occurs. A cool light source produces warmer shadows in comparison. North light is a good example of a cool light source and is a favorite lighting situation for many painters.


Example of a cool light source with warmer shadows.

As mentioned before, lighting helps to set the mood for the portrait, so it’s important to decide how you want to portray your subject and then use the lighting situation appropriate to the mood that you want to convey. A softer light may be more suitable for a portrait of a woman or child, while a stronger contrast in light may work well for a man’s portrait. Each portrait is different and it’s up to you to decide how you want to paint a particular person, based on the client’s preferences as well as the individual character and personality of the sitter.

Lighting can also be used as a design element within a painting. You can help direct the viewer’s eye through the use of well placed areas of light and shadow. Sargent did this quite often in his portraits by incorporating shadows as a means of getting the viewer to focus on a particular area of interest.


Painting by John Singer Sargent. Notice how Sargent has used a shadow in the upper left hand side of the painting in order to downplay the woman’s arm and help to direct your eye towards the head.

Whenever I take photos for a portrait sitting, I’m constantly noticing the light on both the sitter as well as the background and make adjustments as I go along. I may move more to one side of the sitter in order to get a better lighting effect, adjust the sitter, or rearrange elements in the background in order to get the information that I need.

It’s also important to note the values behind the head when it comes to lighting. Don’t just settle for taking photos in any given lighting situation with the intent of going back to the studio and changing everything. By doing so, you miss the whole purpose of the portrait sitting. The goal is to get all of the information that you need during this time in order to paint the portrait.

Compose and design as you’re taking photos, fully aware of both foreground and background. You don’t want to spend your time pulling your hair out in frustration back at the studio because you didn’t get what you needed during the sitting. I’ll talk more about the subject of taking photos in my next blog.

To the painter, light is everything. When deciding on what type of lighting to use next time, plan ahead so that you’ll be better prepared during the portrait sitting and back at the studio.