2. Knowledge of The 12 Lights

Introducing The 12 Lights : How to be a winner at the art of painting

‘Victory’ : The official art of the 2011 Kentucky Derby by Lesley Humphrey

I would like to preface this chapter by giving complete credit for my understanding of painting light to my mentor, Dick Turner of Houston who, so far as I know, was the first to assign numbers to lights. Dick painted with 10 lights, assigning numbers to colors/qualities of light, based upon which number upon the value scale they fell; For example: Black was light 10, dark blue or purple would fall into the 9 category, whilst white was 1, etc.

My Kindly Old Teacher : 18 x 14 acrylic on canvas. (This is for you Dick, wherever you are.)

Due to an early and unexpected demise, I only studied with Dick for a total of 24 precious days, and whilst I never grasped his particular method of painting, I did understand the various qualities of light, and recognized the value of organizing my painting process, so I could learn to “see”, and therefore paint, to the best of my ability. Dick was not only an organized painter, he had an artistic, highly creative soul and insisted I challenged myself toward creativity and art.  Indeed, those 24 days provided valuable lessons that launched my understanding of painting and Art forever. (Notice, I didn’t suggest that they were the same thing….).   I am deeply indebted to Dick for his genius, his generosity, and his terminology, which I will use from time to time throughout these online lessons.

When painting realism, I don’t paint horses, people, trees, etc….I actually only paint two things:

Where light hits, and where light don’t hit! (Statement inherited from my ‘very Texan’ mentor, Dick!)

When the goal is to paint something in the visual field (objective painting) rather than from some internal intention (subjective painting), it’s only light, and quality of light, that I need understand.  As I have already said, this is not ‘THE’ way to paint; but it is “A” way to paint that works, as artists will testify over and over again who have learned and applied them. So, let’s paint!

I’d like to suggest a grey gessoed painting ground (canvas, panel, board, etc.,) upon which to work until you have grasped the concept of painting The 12 Lights. It’s beneficial to use a similarly toned grey palette upon which to mix your paints…

Initially, I’m going to suggest you try painting with the “wet-in-wet” technique, which I think is the easiest and quickest to learn. In other words, we’re going to use a painting medium, like Liquin or Linseed oil, to make out paints a little more fluid, and enable us to better control the transparency of the paint.

I’m going to start by demonstrating light upon a basic red ball, then I am going to show you the very same principle painting a simple image, yet more exciting image.

Notice here two photos of it, one with, and one without a “light pattern”. We are going to use the one with the clearly delineated light and shadow plane:

Ball with no interesting light/shadow pattern.

Ball with light/shadow pattern.

Introducing Lesley Humphrey’s 12 Lights:

As my kindly old teacher taught…
There are two kinds of light: Where Light Hits, and Where Light Don’t Hit!

Here is a brief description of what I consider the most important tool a representational painter can have; knowledge of the 12 lights.  They will be more clearly defined and demonstrated in Lesson 1 : Basic Red Ball, and further described on more complicated objects in later lessons.

Light 1:  The Form Shadow

Found on the body of an object in light as its form turns away from the light source.  Indicates and describes form, shape and bulk of objects.

Light 2:  The Cast Shadow

Found upon light planes where direct light is obstructed by another object closer to the light source, therefore casting a shadow.  Indicates direction and quality of the light source.

Light 3:  The Void Shadow

Present in cracks, crevices and creases.  Quite literally; ‘where light don’t hit!’

Light 4:  The Local Color

The color of an object not affected by strong light.  (See red balls above)

Light 5:  High Lights

Found on light side of object.  Delineates form by creating increasing layers of warmer, smaller, cleaner, higher light shapes.

Light 6:  The Image Light

Found on top of the highest high light (Light 5.)  It is actually the image of the primary light source reflecting upon the surface of a shiny object.  People normally refer to this as “the highlight.”  I think it best to refer to it as a distorted image of the strong, primary light source.  (Look into a friend’s eye to confirm.)

Light 7:  Ambient Light

Found in the shadow side of an object in light.  Light ricochets off objects, particles and even humidity, softly illuminating the shadow sides of objects for us.

Light 8:  Reflected Light

Found in the shadow side of an object in light.  Reflected light is a secondary light that comes from adjacent objects, not only illuminating the shadows (as in Light 7), but also lends colors and sometimes even textures into the shadow side of objects.  Adjacent objects that are bright in color, and also receiving strong light, will send/reflect their color also into the shadow of adjacent objects.  Think of a brightly colored scarf reflecting into the underside of a chin, or the green grass sending color into the shadowed underside of a grey pony.

Light 9:  Captured Light

Internal light within transparent/translucent object. Found upon the internal surface of a translucent/transparent object on the opposite side of the image light.

Light 10: Transferred Light

Light passing through object to shadow plane. Found within the cast shadow and caused by light passing through a transparent/translucent object and illuminating part of the cast shadow.

Light 11:  The Light Source

Sunshine, moonlight, lamps, candles, fires, etc.

Light 12:  Halo Light

The halo light is an optical illusion, caused whenever two planes of different values touch one another.

You are now enlightened!

All 12 lights will be explained and demonstrated on the following basic red ball exercise. Now…. It’s time to demonstrate, explain each of the lights and why I have labeled them in this way.

Want to see the process in action? Click below.

Final Word….



My life is a living testament to the old statement “What comes around, goes around”’; or “What you do for others in an act of generosity, comes back tenfold”.  In honor of this code, I began writing down everything I know in these lessons in 2011 and began to offer them out, for free…. But it’s very valuable information.  The lessons constitute a lifetime of learning, and are lent to you as an act of generosity to help you on your artistic journey.  If you find this material helpful, continue to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing this website with others so that they too can be inspired with Art through "Lessons With Lesley."

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