When we look at realist paintings, we try to figure out how an artist manages to achieve such level of realism in his or her art.
There are three elements that make drawings and paintings look three-dimensional on a flat surface:
- the drawing accuracy of shapes
- clear understanding how the light turns the form
- and the correct placement of highlights on objects, fabric and people.
In this post I cover how to see and place highlights, using various media.
What is highlight and how do you find it?
Highlights are the lightest lights or the whitest spots you find on your objects. Always analyze the light direction and the light source. Is it coming from the left or right, top or bottom? You’d find the lightest areas on all objects being the closest to that light source.
The placement of highlights on your object is often logical. Analyze the light direction. If it comes from the left corner, then your highlights would be on the object’s left hand side. If the light comes from above, then the highlights accumulate on the object’s top.
If it’s a vase, a cup or a bottle directional highlights would appear on the object’s surface where the object usually curves or changes direction.
You may see secondary lights in your set up as well. Usually they’re light but not as strong as the highlights. Make sure they remain secondary and don’t compete with your major few highlights. This way you create a hierarchy of the light and shadow.
How to place highlights in graphite drawing
To draw the highlights on your objects, shade over the area lightly with a hard pencil (2H) and then use the kneaded eraser to pull the highlights with it. This eraser doesn’t leave any residue and gives a perfect soft edge around the highlights. Therefore, the highlights look natural, rather than outlined.
The highlights’re pulled with the kneaded eraser on her cheek, neck, ear and in and around the eye.
How to place highlights in colored pencil drawing
On white paper:
In colored pencil drawing on white paper, I preserve the highlights by carefully reserving the white space around each highlight with a light colored pencil, using light peach or cream color. So, the whiteness of the paper is the highlight itself.
Highlights always stay free of any shading. Don’t use white colored pencil to color your highlights! You will lose the luminosity. This technique is similar to watercolor painting where you paint around your highlights. However, there are times when I shade with the white colored pencil around the highlight itself to soften the edges, and to transition into the light.
This drawing was done on white, Bristol smooth paper with the lightest areas remaining free of any shading to preserve luminosity.
On colored paper:
If I draw on colored paper, I place the highlight by mixing two colored pencils together. The first one gives me either warm or cool undertone and the second one is the white colored pencil itself. Usually I use a very heavy pencil pressure to shade over the space with white.
How to place highlights in oil or acrylic painting
Even the brightest highlights have a little bit of color in them. Analyse the light to see if they are warm (yellowish-orange) or cool (bluish-greenish), and add a touch of color to your white paint. Titanium white is a cool, dull color by itself. That’s why the beginner paintings have a lot of white in them, but no sense of the light, which is created with glazes, scumbling, and layering rather than with lots of chalky, white paint.
To learn more about the distribution of light, reflections and reflective surfaces, you can buy my digital book here: http://veronicasart.com/product/creative-techniques-colored-pencil-graphite-oil-painting-digital-art-book/