After Darkness, Light

Article by Darren Rousar.

monet-morning-haze-1888-croppedMonet’s Morning Haze (1888), cropped.1

When drawing and painting from nature we’re hindered almost as much by our tools as we are by our lack of skill. Foremost among those difficulties is nature’s range of value compared to that of our chosen medium. Nature’s gamut is far wider than ours, and the divergence is tilted towards the darks. That is one reason why it’s almost always best to begin with the darks, and only after darkness, light.2

This article is focused on drawing mediums and oil paint. Though the principles still hold true for watercolor, casein, and gouache, I don’t usually use those mediums so I cannot explain how to put it into practice with them. As a start, however, let me say that in watercolor you are always darkening as you go, all the while trying to preserve the lights which cannot be added later. I think that process and mindset can help keep you from overexposing the painting.

We’ve all seen washed-out paintings on the Internet. Some of us may have even seen one on our own easel! Copyright and kindness prevent me from showing you what I mean by using works from living painters. Instead, I’m using photographs and digitally adjusting some older artworks to make my points. While the results are not identical to the error in question, I think you’ll still see what I mean nevertheless.

leveled1On the left, a scene properly photographed. On the right, the same scene overexposed.


As mentioned, the crux of the problem is gamut. More precisely it is the difference between three distinct gamuts:

  1. Nature’s gamut (or the gamut our eyes are capable of perceiving)
  2. The gamut of our medium
  3. Our eye’s dynamic range

What is a gamut? A gamut is the entire range of something. The gamuts in question here relate to the light intensity (or value) of visibly reflected light. Light intensity is measured in units of lux with a photometer. You can see this for yourself with the correct app, using the camera on your phone as a photometer.

indoors-outdoors-luxThe larger the number, the more light was reflected from the target. Readings were taken by pointing the back lens of my iPhone SE at shadowed areas, and then at light areas of the respective scenes.

Relative to observed nature that gamut is extensive; from the dark of the deepest hole to the brightest light of a highlight on a wave of water or on a snowfield in the sunlight. As you can see from the readings above, indoors as seen under natural north light from a window, the gamut of nature narrows dramatically.

As narrow as indoor gamuts can be, the gamut of our materials is even more narrow.

Pencil, Charcoal, Paint

The image below shows the darkest darks obtainable using four standard drawing and painting materials. These are compared to a control black from a computer monitor (RBG, on the right). Bear in mind that the value of the control black is still a bit lighter than the darkest dark one can observe in nature.

mediumsHad I been more careful and fully filled in the hatching, I might have got the overall value of the 8B graphite pencil to go a little darker. But the same could be said for the two charcoals in use so the comparison still holds true. Also, what’s listed as Maple Charcoal is something I made myself. You can read about that process in the article, Making Charcoal.

What should be visibly clear is that oil paint gives us a darker value of black than do either charcoal or pencil. Note as well that the 8B graphite at the shown value is only marginally useful. To get it that dark you’ll need to press so hard that it will never erase.

Looking out my window just now, I see a bush and two trees. Under each is a shadow on the grass. Each of those shadows is distinctly different in value, with the one cast by the bush appearing quite dark. We can match the individual values of all three with all of our mediums.

More importantly, we can accurately match their values relative to each other as well. But will get to that shortly.

Indoors under the north light from my window I see a number of shadows in the room. We can match most of those values with our mediums, except two. Well, that’s not entirely true. We cannot exactly match the value of one of those darks. For the other, we can arrive at its value, but not in its color note. So in that case we have to choose between value and color.

That is oftentimes the same choice forced on us when it comes to the light end of our various gamuts. Do you match the value, or the color?

leveled2On the left, a scene properly photographed. On the right, the same scene overexposed.

A Bright, White Light?

White light is a combination of all visible colors. The sun emits white light, but our atmosphere affects our perception of that light such that it appears tinted slightly towards yellow. The lower the sun is in the sky, the more orange and red it will look because there is more atmosphere between it and us.

I could bore you with all the science, but let’s just say that regardless of what we perceive the sun’s color to be, in broad daylight it is the brightest light.

However, that light is emitted light. What were drawing or painting most of the time is reflected light (similar to but not to be confused with reflected light bouncing off one object onto another).3 In other words, the rays of emitted light from the sun strike an object and then reflect off of the object and into our eyes.

An identical process occurs with artificial light, as in a light bulb illuminating a cast.

Gamuts Compared

Below you can see a diagram of gamuts. It’s not a perfect representation, of course. Of the many imperfections is that you’re viewing it as light emitted from a digital display of some kind. But the point is to represent comparisons.


The top gradient in the diagram represents visible light. Notice how broad the gradient is.

The gradients representing our materials are below it. Their width is more narrow, and not uniformly so. Also notice that the gradients are not centered on each other. No, it’s not an inability to visually center on my part. Rather, it is because the ranges of each of our material options are different. They are not only different from nature, they are also different from each other.

Furthermore, each of the material’s ranges is skewed closer to nature’s dark end of its gamut than to its light end. This is important to understand because it hints at a key reason to begin with the darks.

Dynamic Range

Adding a little more complexity to our subject is the third aspect of the visual values trinity: that of dynamic range. While we can perceive an extensive gamut of values, our eyes cannot perceive that entire range in one glance. The section and width of the gamut we can see at once is entirely affected by context. That context narrows the perceived range dynamically, adjusting to whatever we’re looking at.

Stated in another way, while normal vision allows us to perceive very dark shadows and very bright lights, we cannot do both at the same time. Instead, our eyes adjust to the visual context of the scene.

Move from a dark room to bright sunlight (or vise versa) and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll be momentarily almost blinded when you get to the sun, but after a short time your eyes will adjust to the brighter segment of their gamut. Then, due to the diminished size of your retinas, your ability to perceive values, color notes, and details in the dark areas of the scene will be hindered.

A similar process takes place in photography (which is partly why I’m using photographs in this article).

leveled3On the left, a scene properly photographed. On the right, the same scene overexposed.

Back in the dark ages – you know, before the advent of digital photography – anyone with a camera had to have some understanding of dynamic range. Why? Because if you did not understand it you would either under or overexpose your photographs.

Nowadays most cameras do that process automatically. Point your phone at the sky and the aperture behind the lens narrows. Point it at a shadow in the room and the aperture opens up. While this is similar to how your eye works, the gamut of a camera’s sensor is not nearly as broad as that of your eye.

Beginning With the Lights

What happens when you begin with the lights? The answer depends upon relationships. You’ll have read about the concept of relationships throughout the site. In fact, relationships are key to almost everything about drawing and painting from life. When it comes to beginning with the lights, failure to maintain the relationships of all the values between the darkest dark and lightest light will inevitably result in overexposed values.

Your lights will be bright. Your halftones will be too bright.4 And your darks will be too bright.

Of course, one could begin with any value in a scene while neglecting the value relationships and end up with overexposed values. However, beginning with the lights often assures that result. My guess it that doing so tricks the artist’s mind into a dynamic range that’s tilted towards those lights (a form of confirmation bias perhaps). As such, they never reach the properly observed darks.

Again, that’s simply my guess.

To visually explain what I mean using a painting, my digitally adjusted version of George de Forest Brush’s self portrait (on the right, below) shows an example of this.

george-deforest-brush-self-portrait2On the left, a self portrait by George de Forest Brush.
On the right, a digitally adjusted version attempting to represent what happens when one begins with the lights.

In it I pretended that George began with the lightest light, which in paint is white. That happened to be on the triangle of collar on his left. Working down the scale led me to the opposite collar, then to the highlight on the nose, and then to the forehead. Continuing in this way results in washed-out shadows on the dark side of the face, precisely because they were painted last after working down from the lights.

What’s happening here is that by keying the painting to the lights in the scene, without also accounting for the darkest dark, I’ve taken the already narrow range of paint and inadvertently narrowed it further. See the diagram below.


It is interesting that the process I used to do this in Photoshop mimics what often happens to us when we begin with the lights. I told Photoshop to consider the collar on the left as white. The software then re-designated all the values in the image using that white as a basis. The result is a washed-out image.

The Landscape

One of the reasons I chose landscape photographs for most of this article’s images is because the problem in question frequently occurs when landscape painting. It does happen in the studio as well, but there’s just something about that smash of daylight that seems to overpower beginners when outside.

Early on I had the same problem myself. Outside, in front of nature, all looked fine. But once I got back to the studio the paintings looked like I had been seeing through a fog – only there had been no fog.

I finally realized that I had forgotten the cardinal rule: darkest dark and lightest light. Instead, I was painting lightest light, then the next lightest down, and so on.

Later in my training with former Gammell students I was advised to begin with a stroke of paint to represent the sky at the horizon line and the corresponding stroke to represent the land. Only after that was I to determine the darkest dark. From there I was to proceed from the distant areas in the scene, painting towards myself, all the while comparing the darks to the darkest dark, and the lights to the sky.

When you follow that process you effectively define the gamut of your materials in the correct relationship to the gamut of nature.


At times nature itself presents us with what appear to be washed-out images. You can see an example of that in the cropped version of Monet’s Morning Haze painting at the top of the article, and in the pre-edited version of the scene below. In these cases we’re seeing light scattering off of and through the moisture that’s present in the air – fog, or mist. It’s a bit of a different situation than that under normal daylight conditions.

leveled4On the left, a scene properly photographed. On the right, the same scene overexposed.

Your viewing position relative to the light source can also create a washed-out effect for your view of your subject. To see what I mean, orient yourself towards the sun and look at the sky. Then, look at a portion of the sky away from the sun. Notice the difference?

After Darkness, Light

Remember the question from earlier in the article: “Do you match the value, or the color?”

Squinting down and beginning with the darks answers it for you because as you work your way from dark to light, you establish a more representative working gamut. This lets you more closely match the values and color notes at the light end in relation to the darks.

As we have seen, keying your drawing or painting to the lights artificially shifts the dynamic range in that direction. This increases the chance that you’ll end up with a washed-out image (especially if you neglect the darkest dark). To avoid the problem entirely, begin with the darks instead.

And then, after darkness, light.

1 I’m using this painting by Monet not because he erred. Rather, it’s a good example of a painting in a high key.
2 I’ve co-opted the phrase: after darkness, light. In latin it is post tenebras lux, which was the motto of the Reformation.
3 I say “most of the time” because light seen through water, glass, leaves, and other transparent or translucent objects is passing through those objects from an emitting source.
4 What about halftones first? I get to that question in the article, Halftones First?.

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