To perceive and identify anything, be it in one, two or three dimensions, our eyes require just three elements: Light, shade and reflectivity. With just these bare tools, we can define shape, orientation and texture.

And these are all that an artist possesses to produce paintings of sublime simplicity or breathtaking detail. It is the applied combination of all three that will determine whether or not an artist captures the essence of his subject, or misses it completely.

If asked to teach or demonstrate painting, I always begin with these words: Look at what you are painting. I mean, really look at it. Study it. Observe what makes it appealing, why you want to paint it. It will almost always be because of the way the light catches your subject or the way a certain sheen or reflection reveals its shape, form or texture. Study it some more because, if you don't see it the way it is, you will never be able to draw or paint it convincingly and it will have no visual appeal whatsoever. These rules apply to the mood and key of a painting, too.

Light, shadow and texture are provided for you by your chosen subject. Your contribution also comes in a trio of disciplines: Observation, Interpretation and Application. In time, given that the individual has the ability to apply these principles, a competent artist will learn how to use these tools to create mood, form and texture in their work.

Last Kill of the Day

This began as a request from a customer for a painting of the great Belgian air ace Willy Coppens destroying an observation balloon during WW1. I won't bore you with the details of researching the aircraft, its markings and the Drachen balloon itself, but will instead concentrate on the actual business of producing the painting.

It was always my intention to depict the scene at sunset. This would afford me the luxury of introducing some warm colours, but also the half-light would make the flames erupting from the gas bag all the more dramatic. I also used a lot of aerial perspective here - the muting of the ground below the aircraft, as though viewed through a fine mist. This gave me the opportunity of causing the setting sun to 'flare' slightly and lend a crimson hue to the top left corner.

The exploding balloon also meant that I had two sources of light, which I put to good use to prevent the aircraft from becoming a mere silhouette. The sun catches the upper and lower wings on the left of the painting, while the reflected light from the balloon ripples along the fuselage of the aircraft, its tail and its wings. This type of lighting is perfect for showcasing the many textures in the painting, namely the fabric-covered wings, wooden struts and the metal engine cowl and tubular wheel struts as they each reflect and absorb light in different ways. To me, this same scene in a clear, daylight summer setting would have lacked any of the drama and appeal here. This painting embraces many of the elements I have discussed above from the sublime simplicity of the background to the highly detailed aircraft in the foreground, the latter described in paint by the use of light, shade and reflectivity.

I would never have been able to produce this painting without first observing how light can be optimised to reveal shape and form. Years of really looking at the interplay of light on metal, fabric, skin, concrete or glass has given me a collective knowledge sufficient to apply these observations to almost any subject with confidence. If you want to learn how to draw and paint, first you must learn to see.

A Night Action Off Cadiz

I have written in another artist feature on this website about night paintings and this is one area where the careful use of light becomes especially important. Another pearl of wisdom when planning a composition is know where you are going before you start. At the risk of sounding a little corny, a painting is like any other journey and you need to know your destination and plan your route carefully. To carry the analogy further, if you don't want to end up bogged down on a muddy track a hundred miles from where you (finally) decide you wanted to be, make a plan and stick to it.

This doesn't necessarily mean making loads of preliminary sketches, just think it through before you start. Indeed, I often find that preliminary work drains the initial inspiration away before I even start the final piece but, sometimes, it is necessary.

In the case of A Night Action Off Cadiz, the only source of light was going to be the flash of the cannon. I was capturing a single moment in time, like a camera flashgun firing in the dark. As in the previous painting, that 'hot spot' in the centre of the composition was going to be key. The ship furthest away could be brightly lit, whilst the illuminated cordite smoke allowed me to spread the light further, enveloping the enemy ship.

The sails, masts, yards and rigging are all therefore lit from below, becoming less brightly lit toward the top of the masts, whilst the glow seeps through the sails of the nearest ship, revealing the slightly see-through fabric. The whole thing is just an exercise in playing with light and shade to effect drama and atmosphere as the light plays across the heaving swell of the sea.

Tilly and Lone Rider

Possibly the simplest use of light and shadow is employed here to create a pair of atmospheric paintings - one of a young cat and another of a cowhand and his horse. Barely more than the outline is visible when backlighting is chosen. In the case of the cowhand, the strong backlit light source and dust, instead of smoke, is used to great effect to spread the glow and allow some definition without lifting the tonal key of the painting or diminishing the intensity of the light.

Gossamer Wings

Finally, flesh. In my painting, the lighting is rather artificial, being that it strikes the subject from above and behind and on both sides - not impossible in natural light, but rare. The lighting was always planned this way for two reasons: To be certain of not being too revealing by allowing dark shadows to obscure much of the body and to allow that beautiful play of light along the model's thighs and down the sides of her body and to give her delicate fairy wings a translucent, shimmering quality. Had this scene been lit in any other way, the effect would have been nowhere near as exciting or indeed as erotic, for that matter and the subtle shapes and curves would have been less well defined.

All of these paintings are notable for their intense use of light, shadow and texture, but these examples are mere extremes to illustrate how these simple tools can be put to good effect. Every single painting that I do will call on these same elements to a greater or lesser degree. When adding those all important highlights in the final stages of a painting, it is important to remember that glass is shinier than painted metal and that painted metal is shinier than fabric or wood. Water is more reflective than skin and skin will absorb more shadow than metal. Whether something is soft or hard, metallic or textured, it is capturing how light reacts to those surfaces that an artist will use to capture the form and texture of the subjects that he or she paints so that you, the viewer, will know - just from looking at some paint on a canvas - that this bit is made of glass and that bit is made of wood.

The artist doesn't need to paint the material, just the way it reacts in different lighting conditions. It really is all about the light.