There is more than one way to light your scene. What is your lighting adding to the story? This video introduces some of the psychological implications of typical lighting setups. In fact, it's common for beginners to ignore lighting completely, rendering forms in a generalized way. As you progress as an artist, however, you'll need to harness the narrative power of light and make it work for your compositions -- not against them.
If you're not painting from observation, light is even more important. It's often obvious in beginner work that the artist does not have a strong grasp on the principles of light, because their imagined spaces are flat and confusing. For this reason, light is one of the five categories I explore in the newly launched "Observation to Imagination". I've always been a huge fan of light and it's power for storytelling, and luckily the new premium series gave me an opportunity to explain my approach.
Mood & Light
The painting below is very loose and painterly, but the mood is set elegantly with a bit of intentional lighting. In this case the deep shadows are deep and atmospheric, allowing the artist to use implied detail instead of extreme polish. More than anything, Atack is revealing just enough of the scene to activate the audience's imagination - and he's doing it with intentional lighting.
These two images to the right are painted by the same artist: Dorje, and each has a very different mood. Once again, it's not an overwhelming use of polish or detail used to tell a story in these pieces... it's light. Light used carefully and intentionally. Beginners often add light as an afterthought, overlooking the massive impact it has on the mood of an image. Instead, one might consider the light and color palette before even designing a composition - letting mood drive the piece instead of objects. When was the last time you started a painting by choosing a lighting situation?
Ultimately, painting light is.... just painting. Some painters would argue that there is nothing else. It's a lifetime pursuit. In my opinion, though, it's a constant source of beauty - and worth the challenge. If you're looking for books specifically aimed at this topic, I highly recommend "Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter". It's written by James Gurney, and does a wonderful job simplifying a complicated subject.
I hope that you already love light as much as I do. But if you don't,I encourage you to spend this week looking at paintings with one thing in mind: light. How are they using it? What is it telling about the mood? Why have they decided to use shadows? In a good painting, none of this is arbitrary. Have fun studying!
I've just listed a couple of my recent favorites here, but there is a whole world of other artists using light to their advantage. In the comments, I'd love to see a list of your favorites so we can all trade influences and enlarge our inspiration folders.