Illustration Teardowns: Lighting Techniques

Let’s explore lighting techniques that can be applied to illustration

Rob Levin
Rob Levin
Dec 23, 2017 · 7 min read
Noir Femme Fatale — illustration by Rob Levin

I’ve been reading the seminal book on color and light for artists by James Gurney: Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, and it has inspired me to do a post on lighting techniques as used in illustration — I hope you enjoy!

Please note that all illustrations hereinafter, unless stated otherwise, are the express work of the artist I’m reviewing; I do not take any credit for their works! You can click on the images to visit the artist’s site!

Form Principles

In order to look at the following lighting techniques, a basic grasp of form principles should be understood. Since this post is inspired by James Gurney’s book, it only seems to make sense to defer to his blog post on this prerequisite background on Light and Form.

Also, for more detailed examination of things like specular reflection, diffuse reflection, transmitted light, etc., I’d recommend having a look at Improve Your Artwork by Learning to See Light and Shadow.

Frontal Lighting

James Gurney discusses this essential technique of lighting from the front:

Most people prefer to draw or paint from locations where the light strikes the form sideways, reasoning that they can get the form to turn better with more of a shadow side…But they are missing something wonderful! Frontal lighting does tend to flatten form, but it gives power to the two-dimensional design instead. It gives your whole picture a striking postery impact.

Here are some examples he provides on the above linked blog post. It creates an opposite effect to rim lighting (which we’ll soon discuss)—instead of an edge highlight, you get an edge shadow as can be seen in the following:

James Gurney images exemplifying what he calls frontal lighting

Rembrandt Lighting

A related portrait lighting technique, named after the infamous artist himself, is Rembrandt Lighting. Essentially, one side of the face is illuminated with the other in fairly deep shadow less a small triangle under the eye on the cheek. It’s still popular today as it achieves a sort of dramatic affect:

Rembrandt Self Portrait—Note the shadow side’s triangular highlight?
Jeremy Booth—even this vector styled illustration incorporates the age-old Rembrandt lighting technique. Note the triangular’ish shape on his left cheek (your right)?

Jeremy Booth has many more illustrations in this vector noir style well worth perusing—start with his most recent GQ Life Cover in the same vain.

Rim Lighting

Also called edge lighting or backlighting, the notable result of this lighting technique is a sort of fringe of highlight alongside the edge of the subject. If you examine the top illustration I did for this article, you can see I placed a bit of rim light on my subject’s back of neck, with the idea that the light was coming through on that side.

Here’s a more obvious use of rim lighting which is exemplified in the edge of the face and neck:

Amazing use of rim lighting and low vantage point—illustration by Giovanni Maisto

There’s a way to draw or paint a simulated rim light effect manually which is very nicely exemplified in this video by Loish:

Loish shows how to create a rim light effect manually painting the edge


Light from below in a night scene can imply a sense of horror or evil. Whether this light is coming from a fire, theatre light, or computer screen, we tend to associate this effect with trouble being just around the corner. But it can also be used in more nuanced ways like in this very creative illustration:

Trippy balloon guys. Besides the geometric lighting of the faces, we see light emanating from below if you look by the shoulders of the figures — illustration by Anano Miminoshvili

Contre Jour

Contre Jour — this is a sort of backlighting where the subject almost blocks the light such that the light appears to explode from all sides of the subject:

Beautiful example of Contre Jour. If you follow the link to this on her IG, she generously showed process shots! Illustration by Ilya Kuvshinov
Living Room Studio. Contre Jour with a bit of edge lighting on the hair. Illustration by Mike Redman

You’ve probably seen effect with a figure standing in a light drenched hallway, or sun blast. For more examples check out this wikipedia entry.


A spotlight effect can be used to effectively put focus on your composition’s focal point. For example, Malika Favre uses this lighting arrangement quite nicely to dramatically cast light on her protagonist in this Gotham City like night scene:

Malika Favre—Human After All: BAFTA Awards 2015

Fill & Reflective Lighting

A fill light can be towards a colored reflective surface and the hue of the reflected fill lighting will take on that of which is being reflected — think of light bouncing off of a reflective gel material on to the subject.

Color and Light has some interesting conclusions about reflected light, specifically with regard to outdoor scenes given the sun and sky (warm and cool respectively):

In shadows, up facing planes are cool and down facing planes are warm

Reflected light falls off quickly as you get farther from the source unless the source is very large

The effect is clearest if you remove other sources of reflected and fill light.

The color of the shadow is the sum of all the sources of reflected illumination, combined with the local color of the object itself.

On a sunny day, vertical surfaces in shadow usually receive two sources of illumination: warm ground light and blue sky

Pascal Campion—note the yellow being cast on to the cat’s ears ostensibly reflected from the girl’s golden hair?
Loish—note the use of reflective highlights on the lower sides of the cheeks. Left: yellow coming from the coin and dress. Right: Blue coming from her blue hair on the lower cheek.

Here’s a nice tutorial explaining how to incorporate reflective light in to your paintings if you crave more details.

Concluding Thoughts

If you’re in to film or photography, I’m sure this is nothing new to you. But if you’re coming from more of a drawing or illustration background, some of these lighting techniques just may help you to bring your images to life!

Previous in series in series: Conceptual Devices. Next in series: Noir. Also, you may like one of my other illustration teardowns.

Rob Levin does technical things by day and illustration by night. You can view his work at and

P.S. 3 Point Lighting

I’ve saved this as a sort of after thought, as I didn’t bother finding an illustration example of this lighting technique as it’s pretty much used for most portrait shots you’ve already seen as it gives very “even looking” results. The last part of this article even talks about why it may have fallen out of favor due to its formulaic or artificial result that doesn’t quite reflect nature. That said, it’s a standard and not going away, so it’s definitely worthwhile to understand the basics of how it works.

Disclaimer: I’m not a photographer, so please follow links for more detailed info!

Essentially, you start with a dark room and a subject, add a primary light from in front and possibly slight angle. This is the key light. Now you add a light from the side, the fill light, also illuminating the subject, often with lower strength then the key light. It’s main job is to balance the stronger key light’s shaded surfaces, eliminating any dramatic cast shadows. Finally, the back light is placed from behind and, sometimes, slightly to one side or the other of the subject, with the goal of producing a very slight edge highlight to the subject to distinguish from the background from the wikipedia entry:

visual by Theonlysilentbob

Lighting Resources

Lighting is a complicated topic and I’ve erred on the side of brevity, so here are some resources I found useful in case you’d like to go deeper:

Rob Levin

Written by

Rob Levin

Mainly illustration posts. My Portfolio: & Commissions—

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