Follow Me on Facebook  Get 'How To' Articles via RSS Feed

Types of Light and Value Planes by Don Finkeldei: There are  4 value planes and 5 types of light that you need to deal with as a minimum in a landscape painting .  These are broad generalities - not an absolute rule.  Understanding the types of planes, different kinds of light sources, direction of the light source and how each type of plane is influenced by the light and how they relate to each other will help you create a more believable painting.

As a general guideline, all landscape paintings should follow these rules.  Of course, there are instances where you can, and should, break them…. But make sure there is a logical physical reason and support for breaking them.

Note:  I must give credit to John Carlson since I think he first explained the relationships of  value planes and  types of light.  Also I have to give credit to Clyde Aspevig, Scott Christensen, and the many other artists who gleaned  the teachings of Carlson and promoted them.

  1. SKY: The lightest value plane in a painting.  Overall, the average value of the sky will be lighter than any other portion of your painting.

  2. GROUND PLANES: This is the second lightest plane.   It’s on average lighter than the upright planes (for instance, trees and buildings.  The reason the horizontal ground plane is the second lightest plane is because it receives more light from the overhead sky per unit area than the other types of planes.  It makes perfect  sense if you think about it.

  3. SLANTED PLANES: Since a slanted plane (slope of a hill or side of a mountain) doesn’t generally receive as much light per unit area from the sky it's generally lower in value than the horizontal ground plane.

  4. UPRIGHTS: Uprights can be anything from trees to buildings.  Anything with vertical surfaces.  These are the darkest planes (lowest in value) because uprights recieve less light than any other type of plane from the overhead sky, and, in the case of trees, there’s a lot of little pockets of darkness (shadow under things).

To create a believable landscape painting you should keep in mind the type or types of light affecting the object or area that you are painting.  Not only should you keep the types of light in mind, but also the value planes discussed above and the relative lightness/darkness scales you have to work with on each value plane.  All objects need at least three types of light modeling to make them look real (light, shadow and midtone).

  1.  LIGHT: This is the sunny side of an object, or the side that gets the most light.  A tree may have a light side (the side or area where the sun is shining on it).

  2. SHADOW: Obviously, this is where the light doesn’t shine -- the shadow side of an object.  This area is darker in value than the light, as you would expect.

  3. MIDTONE: A lot of people forget about the mid tones, half way in value between the light side and the shadow side.  There are always mid tones in curved rounded objects.  Even a tree must have mid tones.  It’s the transition area between the light side and a shadow side.

  4. ACCENT: An Accent is the darkest or lightest area in an object (which contains light, mid tone and shadow areas).  Never overdo accents.  Take a tree for example:  in addition to the light, mid tone and shadow, there may be a few accents, the very dark tree trunk, or the light side of a white aspen trunk or tree limb.  Just a few, don’t overdo them.  I generally wait until the object is modeled before adding the lightest accents.  I always put in the darkest accent before modeling the light/midtone/shadow.

  5. REFLECTED LIGHT: Reflected light is most commonly overlooked and misunderstood.  An object’s intrinsic color and value is affected by light reflecting from other objects near to it.  You should always keep in mind the objects near what you are painting and consider whether the near object(s) might cast reflected light upon the object you’re painting.  For instance, let’s take an example of a red barn and a green shed next to each other.  The sun is to the right.  The green shed is to the left of the red barn.  The red barn’s shadow side is facing the green shed’s sunny side.  The green shed will reflect into the barn’s shadow enough to change the color of the red barn’s shadow to a greenish tint.    Another instance where you should consider reflected light is at the base of buildings (where the ground plane may be reflecting on the building near the ground).  If the ground plane is grass green, bring some of that green into the color of the side of the building near the ground --- and even some up higher.  I know you’ve seen paintings where the building seems to be floating… and not realistically founded on the ground.  Reflected light is the reason (and softer edges)… there’s generally always a smoother transition of color and value between the ground plane and the building. 

Keeping in mind both the type of value plane and the type(s) of light affecting an object will improve your painting.  For instance, the light side of a tree (an upright) should be darker than the light area of the ground plane.  The Shadow side of a tree should be darker than the ground plane in shadow.

As stated earlier, there are instances when you can and should break these rules.  Here’s a situation where you can and should:  If the sun is on the horizon, an upright with a side facing the sun would be higher in value than the ground plane.  The upright that is facing the sun  is reflecting more light than the ground plane would (because the angle of light on the ground plane is very low).


# gigi 2013-09-03 20:08
Don, thank you for all of your informative, well explained
articles. Carlson does talk about the above subject in his
book, although he covers this, his explanation is very complicated. I find your writing very easy to understand.
In Carlson, I find that he makes subjects more difficult
to understand in the manner of his writing. You have covered alot of whats in his book, and thank you for explaining with a very detailed, yet, easy to understand.
Just think his book covers common sense subjects, but
He makes it very difficult to the reader. I now get it from
Your readings.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Don Finkeldei 2013-09-07 23:38
Thanks, gigi

I found the same difficulty understanding Carlson the first time. Types of light and value planes of course can be understood by simple observation. Carlson didn't invent it. But, Carlson was probably one of the first to put it into words. I hopefully try to explain in a logical way and you're response is greatly appreciated.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Thaomani 2013-05-09 04:40
Thank you so much for this post! I've just started my acrylic painting lesson 2 weeks ago and I've never understood why my painting's so wrong. And I've also blinded on the reason why I had to do that "accent" on many spots. After reading this, I think I got it better now. :D I've been searching the way how to improve my acrylic painting skill for long and this helped a lot! Thanks again ;)
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Frances Wisner 2013-02-24 19:57
These concepts were not discussed in general university art classes of the late 60's or early 70's. I thoroughly appreciate learning this info at this late date. thanks.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Mark Tabler 2013-02-24 19:56
I think it's true that anyone who spends time really looking at the subject will come to the same conclusions--bu t I find it valuable to read an article on the subject, for it helps me organize thoughts, helps me cement concepts I've already developed, and helps me consider new approaches. So, thank you, Mr. Finkeldei. I'm enjoying your site!
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Painter 2013-02-24 19:55
Carolyn, a lot of people know this information, and by the way, if anybody studied nature they would figure this out for themselves anyway, geez.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Carolyn Counnas 2013-02-24 19:51
I was disappointed you did not credit John Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting as your source.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Don Finkeldei 2013-02-24 19:53
I've never read John Carlson's book. I'll read it. He was a great painter. If he approached the different types of light and their effect on general value planes this way first, then I certainly want to credit him. But, it's simple logic that anyone who thinks about light and values would come to. I suppose I was introduce to this logical way of thinking by several artists early in my painting career, Doug Higgins, Paul Strisik, Clyde Aspevig, Scott Christensen, et al. -- and a deep understanding of the physics of light.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote

Add comment

Security code