How to create dynamic lighting in Photoshop

As concept artists, our job is to reach out to our audience and connect with them on a profound emotional level. One of our primary tools to achieve this goal is lighting design. For this workshop I’ll build a scene using light to create visual interest and emotion. My process is to explore the idea through thumbnails, then bring them into Photoshop for colour development and finish. I’ll rework the scene several times using different lighting palettes to create a range of emotional beats. Learning to do this gives each of us the ability to become a visual storyteller, much like a musician who can score an entire movie with its emotional highs and lows rather than striking a single cord.

I’ll use light to design the emphasis for each scene. My first decision must be to decide what the scene is about and then to design the light accordingly. Concept artists must be cinematographers, exposing their designs to the light of day and hiding distractions in the shadows. This process can bring emphasis and emotion to any part of a scene: the sky, background, mid-ground or foreground.

I invite you to commit to becoming a master of designing with light. It’s only through mastery of the core concepts of draftsmanship, colour, pictorial composition and lighting design that will enable you to create artwork which resonates with your audience.


01. Sketching out initial ideas


I like to start by working out ideas in my sketchbook. I find this step enjoyable because the pressure is off and I can just play around with ideas.

Here I’m using a pocket-sized sketchbook (a Hand Book Artist Journal) and a Prismacolor Verithin orange pencil. The architecture is loosely inspired by a trip to Westminster Abbey in London. I’m intentionally giving the scene three-point perspective for dramatic effect.


02. Tonal rough


The finished rough is painted over the line art with a Pentel water-soluble ink brush and a waterbrush. Technique isn’t important here: any medium that will give you a full range of values will do.

The benefit of simple sketchbook work becomes apparent in this stage. Notice that only the face and silhouette of the façade has been emphasised.


03. Background lay-in


Here I’m setting the stage for a stormy sky and misty grey landscape. I like to start with a warm wash before laying my neutrals over it.

This creates an impressionistic richness that gives a sense of natural light and visual interest to the scene. The simple statement at this stage is a gradation from a light sky to a shadowy ground.


04. Large silhouettes


I create selections for key elements in the image, such as the clouds, layers of architecture, doors, windows and trees. I save each selection as a channel and click them as needed to rough in the establishing silhouettes.

The light patch in the sky emphasises the central building. It darkens toward the edges to give the other building lower contrast and therefore less importance.


05. Lighting detail


Because the big masses of the scene are already established, I can now bring out architectural details and paint in the light raking across the building tops.

I treat the central building as a character close-up, with dramatic lighting falling around the head. This completes the base image, but it’s not nearly good enough. I’ll try to improve it during the next stage.


06. Ker-plowee!


A concept artist must design the light such that the wind, sky and land cry out to the audience. So I’m reworking everything to make the lightning flash inescapable.

The background now disappears against the sky, a warm patch in the sky contrasts with the lightning and the glow has been limited. Regrettably, we can’t rely on lightning for every image so let’s paint some…


07. …Zombies!


I know, I know, zombies are so last year. This is really about changing the emphasis in the scene from sky and architecture to characters. Try strong rim light on characters or important objects to give them visual importance.


08. Pretty in pink


I have to admit something at this point: notice that every one of my previous images lean towards dark and moody? Well, we’re artists, we love dark and moody!

But I’ve seen far too many hopeful concept artists get really good at dark and moody without any range beyond the monochromatic. This becomes a ceiling that keeps us from rising above the crowd, so for that reason I’m going with an anti-zombie pink in this one.


09. Creating a volume of atmosphere


One of the tricks of the impressionists was using backlighting. It’s a wonderful lighting setup because it enhances the simple silhouettes of scenes and sends a unifying warm light cascading through the work. The result is an image that looks as if the space is coming alive as a volume of light. For visual interest I’m letting cool skylight fill the atmosphere in the distances away from the sun.


10. Black night of magic


Okay, enough sunshine now. I can’t resist getting back to the dark and moody. This is a great opportunity to explore the elimination of detail. In this one, shadows lose all information and unimportant edges disappear into the night.


11. What’s inside?


I’m using calmer night-time lighting now, because the lighting is no longer about the drama of the environment, it’s about what’s on the inside.

This is my big opportunity to focus on the interior, so I’m lighting up those windows. Scenes like this are often used in film to establish a location before the camera cuts to the interior.


12. Extremes of light


Here I want to emphasise that you don’t have to resort to a lightning flash to give light a powerful presence. I’m combining top-light with atmosphere so the light becomes a penetrating force in the scene.


13. Light to soothe the soul


No, I’m not a New Age kind of guy, but I do need to be able to convey the natural magic of light. This can be achieved by “golden hour lighting” when the harsh light is reduced but the warm and cool contrasts are increased in the last light of day.

This happens because the redder wavelengths of light are able to penetrate the angular volume of atmosphere, but the bluer wavelengths are reflected away into the atmosphere. Hence the dimmer light and stronger warm/cool contrasts.


14. Into the full light of day


I’ve been falling back toward too much mood and drama again, so let’s go out on a ray of sunshine. The secret to strong sunshine is actually in the shadows; the bright lighting has a tendency to bounce warm tones into adjacent shadows.

Add to that the vivid blues that fall on shadowy top planes from the sky and you have brilliant shadows that only exist in the full light of day.

Words: Nathan Fowkes

Nathan is a concept artist with screen credits on 11 feature films. He’s worked for clients throughout the animation and gaming industries including DreamWorks, Disney, Blizzard Entertainment and Ubisoft.


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