The Basics of Reflected Light

Let’s talk a little bit about reflected light basics today. You’ve probably heard me mention reflected light in various tutorials and maybe even in a class if you’ve taken one of those. It’s time to define what I’m talking about.

The Basics of Reflected Light

What is Reflected Light?

Reflected light is light that comes from a source other than the primary light source. The light of the moon is sunlight reflecting off the moon and back to us.

Reflected light in art is the light that bounces off one object and strikes another object.

No matter what subjects you draw or paint or how you draw or paint them, you’re working with light. How well you draw light determines how three-dimensional your drawing turns out.

How well you draw reflected light determines how strong the illusion of three-dimensions is.

So it’s important to know and understand just how reflected light works.

The Basics of Reflected Light

Inanimate Objects

A natural light source (the sun) in an outdoor setting, illuminates these books and their surroundings. The light source is strong and direct.

Reflected Light on Books

The light source is from the upper right and almost directly to the right of the books.

The Merck Manual gets the most direct light, but since the brightest light is on a side that isn’t visible, you can’t see the brightest highlights anywhere but along the edge where the spine curves around to meet the front cover.

But there is plenty of reflected light. The black arrows below mark light reflected onto the books from other books or from the floor.

But do you see the red-tinted area on the white bricks? That’s light bouncing off the front of the Merck Manual, and illuminating the wall. In other words, reflected light.

Reflected Light on Books 2

If the light source is strong enough and the object off which light is being reflected is close enough to the object onto which light is being reflected, the second object reflects color as well as light.

Horses and Other Animals

Reflected light affects more than smooth or shiny objects. It affects all subjects, animate and inanimate. Take a look at this photo, for example.

Reflected light and animate objects.

The primary light source is the sun, and comes from the upper right. The cast shadow is directly beneath the horse and stretches out behind. The shadows are all exactly where you expect them to be.

But note that his belly and the downward facing planes of the chest are light. The darkest part of the shadows is not on those surfaces—where you expected them—but partway up the horse’s side and chest.

Light bounces off the sandy ground and illuminates the underside of the horse. The affect is especially noticeable because the primary light source is so strong, the horse’s coat is smooth, and the ground is flat, bare, and reflective.

Reflected light on a wet horse is also quite noticeable. That’s what makes “bath shots” so appealing.

Dimmer primary light (as in a cloudy day or indoor light) creates less reflected light. Longer hair also produces less reflected light, as would mud or grassy ground cover.

Also take a look at the top slope of the horse’s rump. The rump is well lighted even though it doesn’t face the light source. Compare it to the shadow on the ground.

The light across the top of the rump is another form of reflected light. This time, the reflect light comes from the sky, hence the bluish tint.

Just to show you reflected light does appear on long haired animals, here’s Max. Asleep in a patch of sun falling on a pink towel.


Pink reflects up onto Max between his eyes, on the underside of his outstretched paw, and in the fur around his neck. It appears in shadows and in mid-tones.

 Conclusion

Not drawing or painting reflected won’t make your art bad. I painted portraits for years without understanding or using reflected light.

But a good understanding of the basics of reflected light, and knowing how to draw or paint it will make the subjects you paint or draw look more three-dimensional. It is a valuable addition in your art toolbox no matter what your preferred subject.

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4 Replies to “The Basics of Reflected Light”

  1. Okay, now I understand the “light source” better and can do more professional drawings. Thank you for all the good tips you give in making us better artists and having our work look so nice.

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