Color theory, color shifting in your artwork

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Color theory is a tough subject as is. When you ran through our other color theory articles, you will know the basics already. This article is the next step. How is color affected by light and other objects? And to what degree will it affect the objects? There is no simple answer to that and depends on many factors. You will do just fine when you're drawing without the following knowledge, but these tips will help you get to the next level and make your artwork pop!

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

Table of Contents (Click to (un)fold)

Light source

Light sources have their own color by nature. They can be very bright or fairly dark and each of them can have its own colors. Although most light sources have fairly stable colors which don’t shift that much once switched on, there are some that will shift. These are natural lights like the sun, the moon, and the stars.

An important note here: Art always has a degree of ‘impressionism’. Not all of us want to draw realistically, not all of us have the same eyes, and what we do is the art of enhancing what’s there, and conjuring what’s not. So this article is a guideline, to help you understand what is natural and normal. Take it with a grain of salt and slather it in your own concoction which is your own style!

How light and shadow work on a round surface.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

Different kinds of light sources

There are many light sources available. They can be direct light from a lightbulb, a candle, the sun, or the moon, but they can also be indirect light or reflected light. This light originates from the original source but bounces from different surfaces.
So what are all these light sources and what do they do with our colors?


Overcast weather allows for really diffuse light. There are very dull shadows present, but nothing really notable. The light that is available bounces around and because it doesn’t have to compete with deep shadows illuminates everything fairly evenly.

Colors are usually relatively warm because they don’t have to compete with the blue light of the sky. But the colors are also somewhat grayed out, leaving them slightly warm but also desaturated.


Sunlight is a white yellow-ish light. This means that it leans somewhat in warm colors. Any surface that is hit with sunlight will look fairly warm, however, this direct sunlight is so light that it also washes out colors. Any surface that is hit with direct sunlight will contain a lot of white and pastel colors. The mid-tones however (see image) that are touched by light, but not directly hit by it, are not dulled down in any way, shape, or form and are very saturated. There are no whites added from the light, and no grays like on an overcast day.

Shadows on a sunny day are typically affected by weaker light, in this case, that of the sky, which on mother earth is blue. This weaker light creeps into the shadows and allows for very stark contrasts.

Sunrise and sunset

Sunset and sunrise are a whole different ballgame. Our sun needs to cast its rays through our ozone layer and atmosphere. They change the light into pinks and purples or yellows, oranges and reds, depending on the weather. These colors are of course cast on the surfaces they hit and will blend their colors with that of the objects.

Because the colors are so different and bounce all around, illuminating the sky as well, they will bleed into the shadows as well, giving the whole scene such a magical scene. Especially when the sky is filled with warm colors like yellows oranges and reds, all shadows will get a relatively warm color, especially compared to a sunny day.

Electric light

Electric light can be anything. We are familiar with our standard lightbulbs which range from cold whites to warm oranges. But as you may know, there are many other kinds of light. Like neon, blacklight, laser, etc.
You treat these lights the same as you would sunlight but keep their relative weakness and specific properties like color and how it diffuses in mind when you use them. In a white room, light has way more effect than it would be in a dark room. And a laser light is very bright but doesn’t diffuse at all.

Because you usually don’t deal with a blue sky when you use electric lights, shadows will take on the colors of the light source slightly. So if the light source is very cold, so will your shadows. If your light source is warm, the same will count for your shadows. Just remember that, because this kind of light is fairly weak, its effect will weaken as well the further away you go from its source. This effect is fairly strong, this is why we have more than one light source in our houses.

Candlelight is fairly weak. You can easily see the blues creep into the shadows.
Image by: Unsplash

Candlelight and fire

Candlelight to me always feels magical. It has properties no other light source has. Anything nearby will turn a warm white and yellow, but anything just even slightly away from the source will turn to oranges and reds. This leaves for really warm and cozy-looking scenes or will emphasize the drama that has occurred on for example a battlefield.

This light is weaker than sunlight or even the regular old electric lightbulb. It will not affect the environment when combined with such lights although it might creep into shadowy areas outside the reach of regular light. Because of this property, it will make shadow colors look warmer than the surrounding area.


Nighttime with the moon out holds very cool colors. As seen in this beautiful image: There is no room for warm colors.
Image by: Unsplash

Even when it’s dark outside there can be a lot of light present, especially from our moon. If you’re not night blind, you can see just fine at nighttime with no unnatural light sources or fire nearby. This is a different story when there’s complete overcast or there is no moonlight available. In the last case the stars may still help you out. but if the problem is an overcast night, you will have trouble finding your way because our eyes can’t adjust to so little contrast.


When you go out though, with the full moon, you are met with very cool colors, mostly just blues in both the shadow and the illuminated areas. The shadows are very clear and dark, almost like on a sunny day. Just the overall picture is significantly darker.

Unnatural light

Drawing nighttime scenes is a whole profession on its own. It can be really interesting to explore this field. Unnatural light sources are even a greater challenge in nighttime scenes because their colors affect so much more of the image that a daylight picture would. Daylight after all dominates a large part, if not all of our unnatural light sources. There are still some rules of thumb though:

  • Warm light + moonlight = cool shadows and warm lights.
  • Cool light + moonlight = cool shadows and cool lights.
  • Warm light + overcast = near black or slightly warm shadows and warm lights.
  • Cool light + overcast = near black or slightly cool shadows and cool lights,

Always keep in mind your light source though! As described earlier, fire has far less reach than a lightbulb would have. The same counts for blacklight, which would only illuminate light surfaces, or laser, which barely diffuses at all.

Overcast reflected light

Reflected light is light that bounces from one surface to another. A very well-known kind of overcast reflected light is light pollution. Light pollution is light that is spread by cities, streets, etc. Anything that causes large areas to be illuminated. This light can and will bounce off clouds too, creating a slightly warm bounce light in the surrounding areas. When you’re far enough away you will see a column of light reaching up and then diffusing into the surrounding areas. This kind of light can illuminate vast areas, eradicating the need for any light source to find your way.

This kind of light is mostly slightly warm yellowish or orangy because this is the kind of light we humans prefer to use. When this is the only light source available, it will cause warm light and shadow. This light will be dominated by moonlight anytime. It is so weak that it might not even creep into the shadows.

Reflected light/ambient light/indirect light/bounce light

Reflected light, and all the other names, is a kind of light that is reflected by another object from the actual light source. This kind of light is fairly dull and will only illuminate areas that are in shadow. The rule of thumb is The darker the shadow, the less likely that reflected light is present, but when it is, it is more clearly visible than in lighter shadows.

Every time light bounces off a surface it will come weaker. Depending on the light and the surface it bounces on, it can easily be 50% every time it hits a surface. And every time it does so it will adopt a small portion of the color of that surface. This is why sometimes your light source may be white, but the bounce light might be reflecting red on another surface because it hit a red surface before hitting the next surface. So when you utilize these features it’s key to understand how colors blend with each other, how light acts, and how contrasts work. You will have little trouble understanding all this after you ran through all the free tutorials available on Life to legend!

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