Painting the light

Few days ago, a young artist who used to follow some of my DMP Course on FXPhd sent me some of the work she’s done, and I wanted to use the occasion of giving her some feedbacks to talk about how to “paint the light”, which is a very complicated but key process for a matte painter.
The exercice was a day to night, on a single frame. And here is the result of it.
Montréal, 27 mai 2011. Rue Prince-Arthur >Est, depuis rue de Bu
I would start with the background, and the sky. The mask of the tree needs to be improved so we have a better blend with the new night sky behind, which also could be a bit darker. I think it’s a bit bright at the moment and doesn’t help the global sense of night time.
For the rest, everything really is about painting the light.
When I say “Painting the light”, I mean being able to reproduce how light works in a night time environment. Without a good reproduction of the natural way light impacts the environment, a day to night or light painting will never look perfectly right.

To explain how light works, I’m going to use few photographs I found interesting.

This one represents for me the basics. You have one source of light, and you see how the environment reacts. See how bright the lamp itself is, and especially the bulb, and then how quickly the light falls-off. The stairs, backlit, appear very dark, with a lot of shadows. The street itself is in a more diffuse light, with a natural and subtle but quite a small fall-off. You don’t have big cast shadows on the facade, but you can clearly see the faces which don’t get any light, which appear really dark (the one facing up). The rest of the facade is not complex in term of light and shadow, it’s quite flat.
Looking at something in black and white really helps to define the value of the highlights and the shadows. I strongly encourage you to always check your painting in black and white in order to really just check these values.

Here is another one :

This is the same sort of example, but this time with colors. And what is really interesting is to see how the color can change, depending of the light source. The SR is warm, because of the bulbs which give a warm colour, so you have a orange tint everywhere. See how the light works again in this section, with a very bright wall right next to the wall, not in a circle shape but with straight lines and angles. Top of the facade is black, because street lights are meant to light under them, not above them. Then you can see the nice way light reacts and creates highlights and shadows on the stairs, the nice speculars on the metallic surface and the edges facing the light being over exposed compared to the rest.
SL is cold, very blue. You can’t see the light source but a nice specular on the wall, very shiny and bright, with a nice texture in it. Clearly the light source is different, and this cast shadow adds a lot of secrecy in the composition.

In this one, we start to have a way more complex setup of lights, with few lamppost as source, but also few more sources outside of the frame, especially for the bottom part.
Again, it is really interesting to check what is very bright, what is very dark, how the lights creates space, bringing elements in the focus (what is right next to the lamppost), and putting other in the shadow (the stairs). It rained, so the ground is wet, creating these nice speculars which is a very nice occasion to play with light. Specs, shadows, texture in the lights, here are few tricks to add realism in your painting.


Let’s bring some color back ! This time, I picked this one to show you how different colors of light can blend together, how some sources are more powerful than other and take the advantage on another one. The Liquor sign is big and green and shiny, but lose the competition with the blue light which projects way more on the ground than the green does. Also, it is really interesting to see how the top of the liquor sign totally disappears in the dark of a black sky, as the BG, this long avenue, which is only defined by the neons signs. Without them, you would literally not see anything is this portion of the frame.
All of these behaviour have to be used as references and inspiration when you work on a day to night. You need to take something you think will fit with what you are trying to do, and try to reproduce very carefully how the light behaves.


Let’s move out of photographs a bit to look at some painting, like this one, by Georges Bellows.
This painting respects pretty much everything we just spoke about above. You have a very bright light source, generating a very bright response in a very small surrounding area, and become more diffused with a short fall-off. Some material catch more the light than others, like the white dress of the lady. You have a great use of darkness, because what is not so close falls quickly into the dark. You understand the background only through the light behaviour, with reflection on a surface you understand as being water. And you even have SR a bit of the path in the light, but without having the source in the frame. You understand the light and shadows on the steps, and have a few speculars on the bench.
Result of this work is that the painting, even if not painted in a realistic way, feels totally real on a lighting point of view. And that is what you need to focus when you work on these sort of project.

To finish this article, one last image, another painting which I find very beautiful.

Painting light is very much about painting the source of the light and the impact of this light on the environment. Painting the source is not very difficult. What makes all the difference is to understand and work on the impact of the light, depending on the material, the specularity, the proximity, the color, etc…
It’s not easy, but it’s key in matte painting to know how to do it !
I hope these few photos and the few words around will help you to get a better understanding on how do achieve a perfect day to night !

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