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Choosing a Light Source for a Portrait


Left Light
Left Light


How you set up the lighting of your portrait can have a dramatic effect on the mood of the work. Our slide show above illustrates some examples of the different physical and psychological effects on the same subject due to changing lighting conditions.

Side Light



Click on the flip icon to view.

Using a side light accentuates the three dimensional form of the subject which is further enhanced by the contrasting background. With one side of the face more visible and the other more hidden it also adds a psychological depth to the character of the sitter.

There is no real difference whether you light your subject from the left or the right. It is just a matter of personal choice.


Front Light


Portrait lit from the front.


Using a front light creates a cold impassive 'mugshot', the type of photo booth image that documents a face for official purposes. This unimaginative and functional lighting is probably the reason why most of us hate our passport or ID-photographs.



Top Light


Portrait lit from the top.


Using a top light creates an other-worldly atmosphere. This direct light source suggests some kind of external influence that evokes a spiritual or contemplative mood.


Bottom Light


Portrait lit from the bottom.


If we interpret direct light from above as having a spiritual origin, we correspondingly understand direct light from below as having a malevolent one. The light source is turned upside down, switching the planes of the face from a reassuring positive to a disturbing negative. Features that we normally assume to be dark such as the eye sockets, below the nose and the upper lip, flip to light and confound your expectations. Consequently, a bottom light source is most frequently used in images of horror.

Drawing Charcoal Portraits



Our lesson on ‘How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Chalk’ is a step by step tutorial that illustrates all the skills and techniques you need to help you draw a realistic charcoal portrait.

We begin with a comprehensive slideshow of our drawing technique, followed by an illustrated description of each stage of the work:

We then explore each stage of the drawing in greater depth explaining the difficulties you encounter with the individual features of the face:

This is followed by demonstration of the various ways that you can light a portrait to create a range of different moods:

Finally, we examine the range of materials you need for drawing with charcoal and chalk and look at some of the basic tecniques you may use:

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