Tutorial: Techniques of the Old Masters to Create Radiant Light

by Abram Bebo May 26, 2012 0 Comments

They call them the Old Masters for a reason, and throughout the years they perfected a technique that, in my opinion, cannot be topped. The amount of realism through the handling of light, halftones and shadows. The transformation of hue, chroma, and value (color, saturation, lightness) as a light turns into a shadow.

I call myself "self-taught" but I do study the Masters. In this tutorial I'll touch on some of the wisdom I've learned from them to achieve a scene with radiant light.

I will show you how to effectively use a grisaille underpainting to lay out your lighting first, so that you can purely focus 100% of your attention on the color, and bring your vision into reality. You will be painting a monochromatic (black and white) version of your work, then layering transparent "glazes" over this, accompanied by thick colorful opaque (not transparent) areas for the lights.

1. Concept:

90% of my work usually starts with a spark intense vivid daydreaming or simple, fun and intuitive drawing. The other 10% will be from inspiration of everyday living. When creativity hits it's very important to concentrate the vision into a sketch right away. My studio is scattered with little post-it notes of hastefully intense sketches. A good concept shouldn't just replicate the power of the camera, it should tell a story. It should narrate a special message to your viewers.


2. Refining Composition

The next step is establishing the foundation of your work. It must be visually strong to hold the image. Think of this as the tour-guide of your work; think, "Where would I like my viewers' eyes to travel? First, then where? In which fun path will they go? How can this path bring further meaning to my painting?".

I complete my final composition sketch on the canvas, and lack the image, but below you can see the elements of my design. This is where a strong eye for design comes into play. A good knowledge of math, believe it or not, actually helps. In some of the greatest masterpieces (including in and inspired by nature), a strong foundation armature was used. From the Golden Rectangle to Fibonacci Sequence.


3. Under Painting (bistre)

This is the first value layer where you position your composition and create a rough version. Before I even begin painting, a few days before I will tone the canvas with raw umber. This means that I'll coat the whole canvas with a thin even wash of color. With works that contain an abundance of light, I will wipe way the area of light- leaving the white canvas showing through.

Then I start the actual underpainting. I complete this with an umber color, using soft Viva paper towels to wipe away the paint to create lights and brushing paint to darken. In this first stage I'll lay in the shapes of my subject, refine the edges and work out the values. I generally work from background to foreground, but over all I work back and forth, sculpting them into eachother. This layer will support the next layer. You must always remember to paint your current layer to aid the next. I do not go too much into detail yet, it will just get covered with the next layer.


4. Grisaille

The Grisaille layer is pretty much a monochromatic (black/white) version of the final work. In this step you want to refine the lights and shadows, and actually start working the detail into your vision.

After the initial layer has completely dried, I will mix out a palette of seven different values. I'll use a 50/50 mix of ivory black with burnt umber and gradually add more and more titanium white to each step. I'll end up with seven different piles of paint from dark to mostly white (saving white for only the lightest areas). Then I'll begin painting.

I'll usually do about 2-3 layers of grisaille, drying between layers. I start out generally "blurry" in vision and with each layer become more and more focused, until I feel that the painting is ready for color.

I keep the shadows thin with minimal brush-strokes, almost letting the brown underpainting shine through. I keep the lights thick. This not only aides to the effect of the work but, almost like a sculpture, the painting will take on a literal 3D effect- the shadows recede and lay flat to the canvas while the lights stick out.


5. Layers of Color

This is where the fun begins! In this layer I will begin with my shadows, laying in thin transparent glazes over the dark areas. I will then work my darker halftones into the not-so-light areas, keeping the paint semi-transparent. Next, I'll step it up with a brighter paint that is even less transparent and more opaque. Step by step, I'll increase until I'm into my thick opaque light.

Here is a 3-Dimensional View of the surface of the painting:

-Note that the brighter the light, the thicker the color. Note the halftone and how it takes on the color of the yellow light as it gets brighter, or cools with the color of the purple shadow as it gets darker.

-You'll notice the color of the highlight is actually cool; hightlights should never be pure white- they should have some color. I'll usually place a cool highlight on a warm object and vise-versa, to create a CLASH.

-Note that halftones can generally be labeled as the "local color" or the true color of the object, this is also the area where the color is most true and saturated, the least effected by the color of the light and the shadow.


I usually divided my color layer into 3 areas, drying in between:

1) Where I paint the color of the shadow, and the dark halftones that work their edges receding into the shadows. The edges gradually receding, getting thinner and more transparent, almost melting into the layer beneath.

2) Where I paint the true halftone with its edges gradually working into area 1 but never covering completely. Remember, RECEDING into the previous layer.

3) Where I paint the light/halftone with its edges gradually working into area 2, then adding strong lights and finally a highlight.

Thanks to light, color becomes an even more complex subject. Light effects the color of everything... even shadow. If you have a white ball sitting outside on the grass, at noon on a sunny day, there's going to be several things that effect the color. First, where the sun hits the ball, it's going to be the color of the light (a warm orangey white). The shadow is going to take on the color of a couple of things- 1) The color of the sky because the sky is emitting it's light into the shadows of the ball; 2) The color of the sun bouncing of the green grass hitting the shadow area of the ball.

As an object turns towards the background (say the visual edges of a sphere), the color of the object will take on the color of the background or object nearby. So if you have an apple with a sky backdrop, as the apple's sides recede away from your eye, they would take on more and more blue.

Now, I could go on forever about the science of light... but instead, here are a few links that are great:

Light- A Detailed Tutorial

The Best Light

Sergei Bongart Notes on Painting


Here is my first layer of color:

After the first layer dries, I'll apply the next layer, dry, then next:

Sometimes, I'll apply a final unifying glaze of color to harmonize the work.


Additional Questions:

Why are the grisaille and underpainting separate steps?
I've found that completing the grisaille separately from the underpainting allows for a bit more control of the values and I can still leave the warm browns to show through, allowing for those nice warm TRANSPARENT shadows. It's all about keeping the shadows thin and transparent, and building up the light layers... literally 3-Dimensionally.

In the demo, you seemed to cover up the man in the light and then bring him back out several times - is this to produce the blurriness from the light creeping around?
Exactly! Intense light has a way of overcoming the edges of nearby objects.

If this is in oil, do you paint into a couch or otherwise use mediums besides the straight paint?
Both. I begin a new layer by covering the painting with my medium one section at a time, paint into that section, then cover the next section with medium. When I desire a more transparent glaze I will add a few drops of medium into a small area of the palette and create a more transparent glaze.

Do you mix your glazes to match the tone of the grisaille?
I usually paint the grisaille a half-step brighter and paint the glazes over this, letting the intense grisaille dictate value. However, my scrumbles of semi-opaque to opaque areas match exactly.

How do you keep the glazes from introducing too much chroma?
I mix a transparent complimentary color to the glaze to neutralize it. My palette is usually set up with a warm yellow/cool yellow, warm red/cool red, warm blue/cool blue. I will neutralize a warm glaze with its warm complimentary, and a cool glaze with a cool complimentary. I tend to mix warm with warm and cool with cool, so I don't muddy up the color or dull it to a bland gray. When two colors share a common color, you will mix a close, harmonious neutral.


6. Document your work and share it with others!

Sharing your work and your process can be very inspiring to other artists. I've been fortunate enough to receive great advice and guidance from some awesome artists (check out Chet Zar, Martin Wittfooth, Gabe Leonard). You can keep the ball rolling!


Well, that's it in a very very general nut-shell. Hope this helps! If you have any questions feel free to post them in the comments below or  email me.

Best Wishes,

J. Slattum

Abram Bebo
Abram Bebo


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