Exploring Color and Composition


Lesson Info

The Power and Illusion of Light

The next thing I want to talk about is the illusion of power and light. And this is really critical for anyone who wants to create an illustration where they have, and here are the two things, dimensionality of forms, 'cause you can't see a form unless there's light on it. So creating that illusion of a form, you have to use light to do it. The second thing is the use of light for emotional power, whether it's the direction of the light, you know, where is it coming from, or it's the color of the light or the quantity, is there a lot of light full lit or is it just one little note, a candlelight. The light does create a sense of emotional space and it absolutely affects the color. So we'll go through both the dimension and the use of light for creating a sort of emotional content. So we'll start with a series of one student from my class doing an assignment that I give, which is basically having the students illustrate a fruit or vegetable that's painted on a ground, again that passage...

of color, that's the opposite of the fruit or vegetable. This is, it could be an apple, but I think it might be a tomato. It's an orange-y red object fruit or vegetable, and it's sitting on the opposite ground, which is this purple blue. On the color wheel, you know that orange and purple are opposites because all secondaries, orange, purple, green, are all opposite one another. So she made a good choice of doing that. She also put this fruit or vegetable on top of a cloth that was green. So the green choice was really good. It reacts to the red, there's a contrast of opposites, and this green reacts to the purple blue underneath. So all these things are working well as opposite color relationships. Now, I want to talk about how she created this sense of dimensionality. It's not rocket science, but there is a certain amount of fundamental issues that never change, no matter what you're painting. When you're utilizing color that has a high degree of opacity, which is what's in the light, and then you shift to what's called translucent color, semi-opaque, semi-transparent to transparent color, that's going to create a sense of dimensionality. That's the first thing. The second thing is the light is really warm. You can see it's sort of a hot light on this warm object and then it gets cooler. The color gets cooler as it transitions to the shadow. That's the second thing that's creating the illusion of the thing being three dimensional. The third thing is really tied to the complementary reaction. This is probably the thing most people aren't really thinking about when they're making imagery is that this is orangey-red. This is purple blue. The opaque orange-red color is literally making it look like it's popping forward in space and it'll always happen. You could take this color and put a patch of opaque orange-red on it and that color, that orange-red would (imitates swishing) look like it's forward in space. By contrast, as we move into the shadow area, the color gets more neutralized. It's red with a little bit of this blue, then fully neutralized in the the shadow and that feels like it's further away from us. It's receding away from us. And the reason why is because this color is letting so much of the blue come through it and this is almost entirely blue. I recommend to the student a little bit more of the red of this would have made it even stronger. That passage is really creating less contrast. This is contrasting what's underneath it, this ground, and this not at all, so that again, kind of makes it feel like it's further back in space. It's an illusion, but that creates a sense of dimensionality. The last thing I just want to mention is in your shadow areas, and this is something I recommended to this student and she would appreciate me sharing this online. Basically, this blue is very close to this color of the object. They should feel different. This object is red and the tablecloth is blue-green. So you want to make sure your shadow color is not the same color as the object itself. The other thing is some of the color of an object will land in the shadow color of any shadow. Shadows aren't just dark. They also have color in them. So the color of an object reflects into a shadow. It's probably the biggest thing, and we'll talk more about that later, the biggest thing that people miss when they do a shadow. They make it black or they make it blue, but it really needs to have some of the color of what's casting that shadow in the shadow, so that was a recommendation I made when she had her crit. Now this is the next piece of this fruit that she did and again, she worked on, this is an orange, on a, actually, kind of green ground. You can just see the edge of it here. That's why this blue is reacting to the green 'cause it's really cool and the green is very, very warm. So this is also beautifully articulated, but she did one extra thing and it's harder to do and really interesting in terms of light. All the things we just talked about, she transitioned opaque, translucent, transparent, warm to cool, opaque, et cetera and complementary color on top of, you know, this is orange on top of green. The extra thing she did was she cast a little what they call reflective light. It's a secondary light that creates this sense of a dimension. We might have light coming in one direction, but we might have a secondary light coming from another direction, and what you want to remember is if the main light is warm, that reflective light should be cooler. If your main light is cool, reflective light should be warmer. They have to be opposite each other in order not to flatten out the whole shape, but that made this feel even more dimensional. Now finally her banana, which I love it. It almost looks like a happy dolphin. (laughs) I see characters in everything, but what she did, which was very wise in terms of composition, she didn't put the banana in the middle of the page. She put this contrasting shape on top of the ground color, the purple, further down in the scene and I just want to mention the two-thirds rule. You don't want to break something absolutely in half because it's boring. So two-thirds of the picture, right where the tip of the banana hits, is really the main area of the composition and then the rest of the space is a different quantity of color. She also has a diagonal shape on a vertical format and that creates a kind of dynamic space. She also anchored her object with this beautiful shape of shadow. So even when you're painting something from life, you don't want to just plunk it in the middle of the page or not think about what shapes are adding up to the overall composition, because even with a really simple image like this, those things really matter. Now, I want to talk about something that I think is a really good exercise and this was a student who struggled dramatically with color. He had real issues with how to translate color in his illustrations. So he came up with the idea to do movie stills, to study movie stills and that, I think, is a really important exercise because in movies, they have to consider the light and what that light is telling emotively, and if you choose a movie where the color of the light really does impart an expression or emotion and then you take a still and you retranslate that, you can capture that and start to learn and isolate what's working. It's like doing a master copy. Sort of the same thing. So what this student did, which I think was really smart, is chose a moment which shows several light sources. You have the warm underlit color on this face and then you have the secondary color, which is this cool sort of rim lighting and so the contrast of those two uses of color create the dimension of this form and I think it's really beautifully articulated. This is all acrylics and it's obviously much smaller. This is a big translation of that. But what he didn't edit out, which would, I think, have been wise, is this patch of color is really vibrant. Kenna, when you look at this, is your eye going to that at all, that blue piece back there? Are you focused on the face entirely or are you caught off by that blue? I think that the blue pops if I just look at it, but also because of the little bit of yellow that's to the left of it because that's almost one of the brighter things, so that contrast catches my eye. So this has to do with where we're trying to look, our color focus. We want to look at the face. We want to focus on this face. This is where the drama is. We don't want to pull the attention of the viewer sort of off stage, to the background. So what I recommended when I saw this was what you should do, and this is before he made any changes, is de-saturate this. Reduce the vibrancy of this. Reduce the purity of this blue, neutralize it just a bit to send it back in space and make it less contrasty, so that we would really focus on the boy. Like if I cover it up, it's almost easier to see the face. So identifying where do we put the vibrancy? Where do we put the strongest contrast? It's where you want us to look. Not off stage or in the background or a character that doesn't matter. This was another piece from that series, and what I love about this is that he was really thinking about the shapes that add up to the whole. He painted this more simply to understand what is the composition and how am I breaking up the shapes of color in the composition to make a whole. It's almost like he dialed it to an abstract space and I think that's an excellent exercise because the thing that I see most frequently is that people are focused on the things they're painting, not on the overall shapes that add up to the composition. You have to sort of almost throw a picture out of focus to see what are the shapes that are making up this picture. I'll take an illustration and I will flip it upside down and look at just the shapes, or I'll look at it in the mirror, which is always a dangerous thing to do, Because it never looks right, but it teaches you about how those shapes are adding up and is it working as a composition. So this is also from the same movie and this was one of the most dramatic scenes in the movie. There's this woman who's quite angry and it's filled with that passion. The pink is just this beautiful choice of light to capture that emotional space and then the contrasting secondary light is this sort of cool blue that hits on the arm, side of the face and the belt. So you've got two light sources here, one that's much more powerful than the other, and what's interesting is that there are three things going on that make this a really effective study. One is that the light is telling us about the form. The second thing is the light is telling us about the emotional space, and that's probably the most important thing. The light is telling us how we should be feeling. The third thing is the light is really telling us about the overall composition of the scene, the shapes of color. So the light has almost the entire power of this scene. Without it, this would be a very different moment. So this was a brilliant choice for this student to choose to study because he could try to capture all those three things and then translate that to his own other work. So one of the things that we do in the classroom is, and this is something based on tradition, Norman Rockwell did this, All the classic illustrators did this, is have a set up in my classroom of a model, a person, dressed in a costume or outfit against a cloth and so the students are required to change out the head and possibly the hands and then put it in a scene. So this student decided to create this wolf. The person was holding a bottle, but of course they didn't have paws, and there was no wild west scene. That was not in the room in our classroom. So this was added. This was all invented and added, but the rest of it was observed, and the reason why that's kind of an important thing to know as an illustrator understanding how to use color is that you give yourself as much information as you possibly can to work with and then, sort of, I call it Frankensteining. Bring in the other elements through photography. She had pictures of wolves. She had pictures of sunsets. and then, almost like a composite, bring those things together to create the illusion of the whole and what you have to do is understand well, if the shirt is lit this way, I have to extrapolate how the face would be lit. She had to find photographs that kind of mimicked that but it's trying to marry all these things to create an illusion of something that isn't really right in front of you and that's probably the biggest, hardest job of an illustrator is making things look believable in a scene that's partly from your imagination. Now another exercise that I recommend for people trying to understand how to use light with color and figure out how light functions on forms is to do self portraits. You can't ever say that you don't have your own face at your disposal to paint or draw or what have you. You always have your face. So this was an exercise in the classroom to do a self-portrait in a limited palette and when you do something like this, where you're able to set up your own lighting situation, this was a single light source. He could only use one. Then dialing the palette in a different direction to contrast and compare the different emotional space created from this piece to that piece. This is easy. This painting was done in watercolor. That was done in Photoshop very, very quickly. So you can change your color relationships in Photoshop easily, probably more easily than with traditional medium material, but this is a simple exercise and a really good one when you're trying to understand light and form. I do have a question that came in. And this is a question from Ava, who was asking would you use that ground color when painting on canvas with acrylics or is it only a technique for watercolor? No, it's absolutely, what is the person's name? Ava. Ava, so Ava, I actually, no. It can be used for acrylics. It's traditionally been used for oils. The Renaissance painters used grounds, watercolor, almost any medium. You use different quantities of color, depending on how much reaction you want for the color on top. If you're doing a very sort of light toned watercolor painting, you might do a thinner wash of tone as opposed to the heaviness that I did. I was building up real form and real deep contrasting shapes. If it's really high key, then that ground should be a little bit lighter, but any medium can use the ground of color. Even pastels. You typically would use a color toned paper, which I've done, to do the pastel on. That's quote unquote your ground. You haven't made it, but the ground is the color of the paper.

Instructor Mary Jane Begin is an award-winning illustrator and author of children’s picture books, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and professor in the Illustration Department. Mary Jane will guide viewers through useful exercises and practices that help to solve both understanding the color they see and want to recreate, as well as exploring the art of inventing palettes that resonate with expression.

The course will be taught through showing concrete examples and a demonstration that deconstructs the “how to’s” for creating a palette that expresses a mood.

Mary Jane will cover the following topics:

  • Color as meaning: subjective, regional and universal
  • The power and illusion of light
  • Creating color studies
  • Choosing the right medium for color expression
  • Deciding on the palette that works best
  • Harmonizing a color palette
  • Expressing meaning with color focus
  • Pulling it all together to finalize an image
  • Experimenting with color through media and materials

The best way to observe color is from life, but analyzing and recreating an image from a photograph can be a very practical way to learn how to effectively interpret color. Please join this class to continue developing your understanding of color, composition, meaning, mood, and expression.



  • I have to say, this class and the companion class were very humbling. I assume I am not like most people who would watch this class in that I have no such artistic talent. I cannot draw at all (limited to "Spike" from TED Talks), but I had no idea such thought, imagination or ideology went into creating these designs. Professor Begin has an amazing presentation style, she is clear, concise and thoughtful. The subject matter was amazing and I can only see it helping me in evaluating my own work and taking a whole new perspective on art, light and evaluation. I highly recommend this class whatever no matter your creative bent. Thank you Creative Live for hosting this wonderful speaker.
  • Outstanding course from an engaging, skilled instructor. Mary Jane explains color and composition in a very clear, accessible way. She also puts theory into practice by analyzing a wide variety of illustrations and pointing out what works, what doesn't, the reasons why, and -- for the critique portion at the end -- ways to fix it. Highly recommend!