All light sources have an inherent color. Photos tend to throw things off so we see things as “white light” yet did you ever paint something, say, a sunset, and when you added white to the sky it just looked plain “off” or even felt not very lit? Why do some paintings glow with light and some just seem chalky?

All light has a temperature. Either toward the warm or the cool. Now if you know which pastel sticks lean toward the blue and which toward the yellow, this is very helpful in building up temperatures. But light can not only be yellow-based or blue-based. Sometimes the light itself is green or orange or even purple.

First let’s start with determining the temperature of a light source. There are 4 kinds of light- Indoor cool, Indoor warm, Outdoor cool, and Outdoor warm. That’s it. Indoor light depends on the bulbs. How they are made and what kind of light they are putting off. Fluorescent lights can have a very cold, almost greenish feeling to them, while standard bulbs (not the twisty kind) are yellowish and warm. Outdoor light depends on the sun and the time of day and how light is being filtered in the sky. First determine which of the 4 kinds of light above that you are working with and if you can, the best thing is to have only one light source with one dominance.

Here are a bunch of photos. What is the color of the light source?

This one above is pretty easy- Outdoor cool light dominates. (there is also some secondary “greenish” indoor light on the right and above her– see hair) You can clearly see the blue on the left side of her face- notice how warm and orange the right side of her face is in the shadow of that light (shadows are always reversed in temperature!) Notice too that as the right cheek gets lighter (in the middle of the cheek) it gets more blue! Look closely… this is because it is picking up more of the ambient light source. Which is blue! Because the light is blue her skin does not just get a “lighter” skin tone, so you can’t just add more lighter “flesh.” It has to get more blue.

Think how nice it will be to pick colors that lean toward blue and know that the colors you pick will keep the integrity of the blue light since you know to look for the leanings in the sticks.

This one above is easy to spot too… outdoor warm light. Yellow- dominant. Not only are the brightest spots on her hair yellow, but her legs and arms are too. (there is no white in this image- none- not even in the dress- it is yellow. Don’t believe me? Look at the contrast with a strip of “true white” below and see how cold the white feels against the lit parts of the dress.

So to keep a warm temperature and a warm feeling to a painting, you can’t really use pure white! Especially in a warm light source.

This one is trickier… what color is the light? She has a California fake tan, so you would think the light is warm and orange. It is not. She may be orange, but the light falling on her is cool. Look at the colors in the shadows… look now at the highlight on her shoulder – see the bluish purple cast in the highlights?
Midday sun is cool. It is true! The sun gets warmer as it falls away from the zenith- morning and at twilight- but at noon it is cool. You have no idea how many paintings I see at shows or in competitions where the mid-day light is warm. Or where everything is warm. Light, highlights and shadows. Can’t happen. It’s one of those lies that photos tell and it breaks the law of light.

This is a type of reference I see all the time… oranges and pinks abound. Very soft transitions. So pretty. But what color is the light? Look at the shadows.

Yep… the light is cool.

So be sure to take a close look at your light sources. They may just surprise you with how colorful they really are.