The Importance of Light in Art

Our content is reader-supported. We may earn a commission if you make a purchase through one of our links.


Everything we see is light. Light, its nature, its physics, and its omnipresence make it the most important part of our world. There’s no doubt that light is the source of all life. But light is also crucial for how we make sense of the world around us.

Light tells us what time of the day it is. The intensity of light tells us how hot or cold the weather is. It allows us to determine the position of things and even how far the light source is from us.

When it comes to art, we could argue that the importance of light in art is more essential than in real life. Surely, someone destitute of vision can lead a good life, but an artwork with no heed paid to light or values doesn’t have much potential.

That being said, it is worth noting that all artworks, no matter how crude, will still have some sort of consideration for lighting because it’s how we perceive things. But only works of art with clear values, or in simpler words, good lighting, qualify or look pleasing to the eye. 

The improper or unqualified use of light in the art will simply make your art look tasteless. Imagine a song without a melody or a bird without wings. That’s what art looks like when the light or values are not optimized – all the potential is wasted.

Here’s why the importance of light in art matters greatly in the art world.

The Role of Light

Still life, portraiture, or landscapes, regardless of the type of art, light is essential for tone and depth.

Tone and depth are not the only two aspects of the art that are influenced by lighting. The colors you use should also reflect the lighting condition. If not, the subject of your art will look incoherent with the setting around it. Utilizing the color theory can immensely help with that.

In the same way, shadows going in the wrong direction will confuse the viewer and make your art look immature. That, of course, if you’re not creating Surrealism.

Light Adds Depth to a Scene

You don’t need a lot of art training or be an artist to look at a painting and identify the light source or the direction where the light’s coming from. One could very well do that. We do it every day, and our minds are trained to unconsciously identify the source of light and try to make sense of the subject we are looking at.

Artworks without a light source or without carefully thought light utilization look unrealistic and unattractive. However, when used right, light adds depth to a painting.

Johannes Vermeer – “GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING”

We create our art on canvas, paper, or wood. Dull surfaces can hold paint and enable us to draw and paint whatever we like. However, if a simple object is created on a canvas or paper without any use of lighting in the work, the object will look dull, nothing more than colored on an uncolored shape on a flat surface.

How to Use Light to Add Depth

Imagine a white sphere, or better yet, take a paper and pencil and draw a circle on it. There you have it, a white sphere. But it just is a circle, right? We are yet to employ the light here, and you’ll see how it transforms the circle into a good-looking sphere, a piece of art.

Determine a direction from which you’d like to throw light on this circle. You could choose its right or left or adjust it high or low. Now create a shadow. It doesn’t have to be precise. In fact, the shape and direction of the shadow you’ll make will confirm the direction of light on the circle, now a sphere. Try shading a bit on the side of the sphere away from the light source. 

Observe the sphere now and notice how adding light has transformed the simple circle into a sphere. In the same way, the correct use of light makes the subject of your work pop out of the canvas and look more realistic to the viewer.

The texture of the objects you’re painting is crucial for the art to look good. And for the texture to work out well, the scene you’re painting needs to be lit well. For instance, the smooth and shiny texture of a fruit or the roughness of a bark needs the correct light to pop out perfectly.

Light Adds Structure

Claude Monet - “Still Life with Bottle, Carafe, Bread, and Wine”
Claude Monet – “Still Life with Bottle, Carafe, Bread, and Wine

When we look at the half-moon, we can see how one half is brightly lit while the other is dark. The face of the moon facing the sun is white and bright, forming an arch of light across the center of the moon. This arch differentiates the bright side of the moon from the dark side and helps us determine the spherical shape of the moon.

In the same way, light can be used in art and portrayed as hitting a surface from one side. The way light hits a surface adds structure to the painting as well as texture to the different objects featured in a piece of art, making it look all the more realistic.

Theoretically speaking, if a colored image was to be displayed in just white and black, the way light is used to add structure to each object in the painting would enable the viewer to easily differentiate each object from the other.

In the above Monet, we can see how bright white is used to represent the areas where light rays converge and give a bright reflection. The edges of the glass, the plate, and the round flask give a silent message about the smoothness of these objects’ texture and their round structure.


Chiaroscuro is a sophisticated art term used to refer to the usage of lights and darks in a painting to create a realistic, 3-D illusion. The word ‘chiaro’ refers to light, something clear, and ‘scuro,’ which is dark and obscure. Together, these words refer to the close contrast of light and dark to make something appear in light, in an overall dark background.

The work below from the famous artist Michelangelo Merisi De Caravaggio is an exquisite example of Chiaroscuro-featuring artwork.

Caravaggio – “Saint Jerome Writing”
Caravaggio – “Saint Jerome Writing
Zainab Waseem
Zainab Waseem

Zainab Waseem is a writer & content creator. Specializing in the realms of art, business, & technology, she has written for various publications over her career. Zainab has a particular affinity with politics, economics, and art and adds value to the Art section at Writer’s Order.