Painting light in a certain color can be a challenging task for any artist. Unlike painting a physical object that has mass and form, light itself is ethereal and intangible. However, with some clever techniques, it is possible to simulate the effect of “painting” light red in a work of art.
Understanding Light and Color
First, it helps to understand some basics about light and color. What we perceive as color is the visible spectrum of light – wavelengths ranging from violet to red. When white light shines on an object, some wavelengths are absorbed while others are reflected back to our eyes. The reflected wavelengths determine what color we see. For example, a tomato appears red because it absorbs most of the spectrum and reflects back the long wavelengths we see as red.
So in essence, painting red light means manipulating the wavelengths of light to emphasize the long “red” wavelengths. There are a few ways artists can achieve this effect:
Using Warm Light Sources
One method is to paint a scene illuminated by warm, reddish light. Some natural light sources emit more red wavelengths than others. The warm glow of candlelight or firelight emphasizes reds and oranges. Sunsets and sunrises scatter more red light through the atmosphere compared to midday sunlight. So an artist could paint a candlelit scene or sunset landscape filled with red light.
When working artificially, artists can use reddish light bulbs or gels on studio lights to bathe the entire scene in red. The warmth of the light will reflect onto any surfaces it hits. Even objects that aren’t red will take on a reddish glow under the red illumination. Skin tones may appear more florid and rich under reddish light. So the artist paints the scene as observed under that colored lighting.
Using Complementary Colors and Contrast
Another way to make red light stand out is to contrast it with its complement – green. Red and green are opposite each other on the color wheel, creating a striking visual tension. Areas of red will seem to advance and glow when juxtaposed with green.
An artist could paint a night scene with a bright green traffic light juxtaposed with dark red taillights. The interplay makes both colors “pop.” Or they could paint a Christmas scene with vivid red and green decorations playing off each other. Strategically combining these complements draws attention to the red elements.
Using Surrounding Colors
The colors surrounding a red light source also affect how it’s perceived. Placing red light against black or dark backgrounds makes it seem more vibrant. Mixing it with neutral browns, whites or grays mutes it. Setting it among bright, saturated colors diminishes its intensity. So artists must carefully orchestrate the color scheme to make red light stand out or recede as needed.
A painter could spotlight a figure under a red spotlight against a black background. Or show a dim red lamp glowing in a neutral room. Changing the surroundings allows them to adjust the red light for dramatic effect.
Using Impasto and Glazes
Oil and acrylic artists can also use painting techniques to make red light seem luminous. Impasto involves thickly applying paint with bristle brushes or a painting knife to create texture. When catching the light, impasto areas appear to glow and stand out from smoother painted passages. Artists can use thick impasto dabs and strokes to imitate the radiance of light bulbs, lanterns or other sources of red light.
Glazing involves thinly layering translucent paint to create colored filters. Multiple red glazes make the underlying paint seem to glow from within with a rich, deep resonance. Glazing over warm underpainting is an ideal way to portray the luminous depth of red light. The color seems illuminated from behind the paint surface.
Using Loose, Painterly Brushwork
Loose, expressive brushwork also lends energy to suggest the movement and flicker of red light. Small repetitive dashes and wiggly strokes layered with thicker scooping motions imitate the vibrant chaos of light. Concentrating brushy marks around light sources directs the eye and generates excitement. Letting the underlayers peek through maintains a luminous glow.
Watercolorists can also use wet-on-wet diffusion and spraying to create the atmospheric scattering of red light rays. Soft-edged flooding of wet washes surrounded by spraying and spattering gives a radiant luminance resembling light dispersing through space.
Using Red Pigments Judiciously
When portraying red light, artists must use red pigments judiciously for maximum luminosity. Opaque reds like cadmium red contain dense pigment particles that can actually dampen the glow when used too heavily. More transparent organic reds like alizarin crimson provide luminosity and resonance. Layering transparent glazes of fiery cadmiums over see-through organic reds captures both properties.
Let the underlayers and white of the canvas shine through red glazes to capture the radiance. Avoid mixing red with too much white, black or brown, which mute its light. Keeping reds clean and lively maintains their incandescent glow.
Use Chiaroscuro Effects
Using chiaroscuro – strong contrast between light and dark – is another excellent way to make red light stand out. Painting subjects emerging from deep shadows into red underlighting heightens drama and focus. The eye is naturally drawn to the red-lit forms against the dark voids.
You can accentuate this effect by outlining red light sources with crisp dark contours. Make the brightest reds glow against the black by “lost and found” edge painting. Boost saturation and value contrast between the reddish lights and shadows for maximum drama.
Combining Multiple Techniques
Often the most vivid effects combine multiple color, texture and composition techniques. You could paint a night carnival scene with strings of red lanterns surrounded by deep blue and green shadows. Use impasto textures to make the lanterns shine against glazed shadows. Heighten the red glow against neutral grey crowds and let complementary colors balance dynamically.
Or do a still life with shiny red apples illuminated under a warm spotlight against velvety black cloth. Use crisp edges on the apples and diffuse edges on the spotlight to direct attention. Deep glazes make the apples glow incandescently against the rich shadows of the background.
There are endless ways to suggest the ineffable glow of red light using the qualities of paint and principles of color theory. A compositional and textual symphony creates the most vivid illusion of lighting up the canvas with radiant red.
Painting convincing red light requires understanding color relationships and using techniques to heighten luminosity. Contrasting red against complements like green makes it pop off the canvas. Surrounding it with dark or neutral colors spotlights it. Using transparent glazes, impasto textures and expressive brushwork captures the glow and movement of light. Careful orchestration of color values and edges creates dramatic chiaroscuro effects. Combining all these techniques creates the luminous drama of red light captured in paint.