Layers Of Light And Dark
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Mar 7th 2021

Layers of light and dark are a tremendously important technique in composition. They help you both lead the eye and to make sure individual objects can be seen separate from each other. This lesson discusses these techniques in broad terms, and gives a number of suggestions on how to use layers of light and dark to make your imagery stronger compositionally.

You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in the video below, or read the full text.

The Basics

So let's start simple. Your goal is to create layers (or planes) of dark on top of light on top of dark for two purposes...
• to allow each layer to be Separate from each other
• to Lead The Eye through the composition
Here's a simple example, using triangles and soft brushes to create a set of mountains around a lake on a misty morning...

So in any composition, the eye will first be drawn to the area of most contrast. Visit my Contrasts In Composition tutorial to see more information on ways to use contrast to lead the eye. But in this situation, we'll focus on Contrast Of Value, meaning areas where the brightest and darkest values sit side by side, which creates a point the eye goes to.

In this situation, that would draw the eye here...

As an aside, since this is the strongest area of contrast, hence a focal point, might be a good spot to place a human figure...

But back to the main point, the next area of high contrast is here, and so is likely the second place the eye will look...

The third highest contrast point is likely here...

Although at this point, the contrast between the light and dark is pretty small, so you might want to use a different type of contrast to draw the eye to this area, like for example contrast of shape by placing a building back there....

So notice how we've created all of these layers of light and dark (see the D and Ls on the next image), which help separate the different layers from each other, so one layer doesn't become difficult to identify next to the rest. And they also lead the eye along through the composition (the arrow path in the next image).

Also note, dark and light are relative. So dark doesn't have to be black, and light doesn't have to be white, a mid grey can be dark if it's next to a white background, or it can be light if next to black.

There are many ways to create these layers, you can use lighting, rim light, bright and dark local color, color, shadows or haze/fog

A Bit More Complicated

Now let's look at a few of my images showing this layering effect.

Here's an image from my Inc Book Project of Landis standing in front of the Citadel.

Notice the layers of light and dark...

One way to achieve these layers that I and many artists use a lot of fog. Notice there's some haze behind the front rocks, but in front of the tower.

Here's a version of the image without the final effects...

Notice what happens if I get rid of that haze...

Now it's really hard to tell where the close rocks begin and the building begins. Another way to fix this problem is to lighten up the building...

Now it's obvious the difference between the building and the rock, but now there's less contrast between the building and the sky. So to keep that nice silhouette building, I added that layer of fog...

Here's another image...

Notice the layers of light and dark going into the background...

As well as fog, I also use rim light to separate the figure from the background.

The Master Class

When it comes to layers of light and dark, no one beats the DPs and lighters of Pixar. Looking at a frame of a pixar film is a masterclass in laying dark and light shapes. And perhaps there's no better example than the Cars films, since the main characters are basically just giant reflective shapes. Check this still out from Cars 3.

Using lighting, we have a tour de force of light against dark, against light.

The underside of Cruz Ramirez (the yellow car) is dark, then so we can see her lips (that are speaking in this shot), her lower lip gets light. Then inside her mouth is dark, so help accentuate the lip. Then the teeth are light. Then the upper lip is dark. Then the hood is light. Then the bit of the hood closest to the eyes goes dark. Then the windshield eyes go light. Then the eyelids are a medium color, but darker than the whites of the eyes. Then the background goes really bright to contrast with the top of the car. This allows her face to be easily read as she delivers her lines.

Also notice the placement of light and dark to make sure you can see the cars separate from the background...

On screen left of Cruz, they added a rim light to bring her out against the dark background. Then on her screen right side, she is light against the dark car behind her, which is against the really light blue background. And the top of McQueen (the red car) is dark against the bright haze coming from that lamp. Guaranteed they placed that haze back there to help separate McQueen from the background. And finally on screen right of McQueen, another rim light against the dark background.

Conclusion

Hopefully this shows you a few ways you can use layers of light and dark to make a more dynamic and easy to read composition.

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