Use of Light in Art

By Steven Yessick ; Updated September 15, 2017

Light was originally portrayed in art with a symbol. Light as fire is a symbol. There are symbols for sunlight as well. Light in art was not even considered part of the art image, outside of being a symbol, during many historical phases. Halos and light beams became symbols for light during the Rise of Christianity, as light took on a religious significance. Not until lighting was combined with realistic representation did light acquire a new meaning. The meaning of light today is as broadly categorized as the variety of understandings it carries with it to the present day.

Historical Significance of Light in Art

Chiaroscuro is a word used to describe the lighting in a painting. Prior to the renaissance and Leonardo Da Vinci, lighting did not play a popular role in the creation of master paintings. Michelangelo utilized Da Vinci’s idea of light and shade to enthrall viewers during Da Vinci’s own time. Other artists such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt took this idea to new heights with their dark and powerful use of high contrast in paintings. Impressionists such as Monet and Cezanne began to use lighting in a lean toward abstraction. Picasso and Braque forged a path for light utilized in abstraction with Cubism. Modern abstraction as well as Surrealism capitalized on the previous ingenuity.

Light and Shade

Light and shade rely on each other and work together in a work of art. In a painting that capitalizes on lighting, there are highlights and there are shadows. Sometimes the lighting is more subtle, all-over and less defined. High contrast works are emotionally intense, as are bright works of art. Dark paintings are beautiful through their mystery.

Two Types of Light

Lighting is used in painting, drawing, photography, architecture, printmaking, videography and even in sculpture. The lighting may be natural or artificial. In a building, natural light brings an element of nature into the environment. Photographers may use sets and artificial lighting; they may also understand the value of a certain natural light for a photograph. Light is studied and conveyed through drawings, paintings and even prints. Music also capitalizes on lighting to create a dramatic visual spectacle during a performance.

Various Effects of Light

Lighting is used in works of art to create contrast in an environment or space. Lighting adds to the visual variety in works of art, provoking interest while helping to determine the layout of a composition. A work of art may be designed entirely around the lighting techniques it contains.

Light or Darkness

In the absence of light, there is darkness. Some artists thrive on darkness, wanting to render some forms or spaces as dark as possible without losing color. Shading methods are useful in drawing to add darkness. In a drawing, the absence of shading determines a highlight. In a room, the lack of windows requires artificial lighting. There may or may not be balance in the types of lighting that are used in a work of art.

About the Author

Steven Yessick is a professional writer and artist. Yessick attended Clemson University Architecture school. He has an Master of Education in visual arts K-12 from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is the owner and creator of yessickart.com. He has written professionally for ehow for since 2009.