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
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
You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in
the video below, or read the full text.
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...
Here's a simple
example, using triangles and soft brushes to create a set of mountains
around a lake on a misty morning...
allow each layer to be Separate
from each other
- to Lead The Eye through
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.