I have been working on this piece for several days now. With this specific piece, I am looking for a mix of both renaissance halo and a expressionist feel. It has been problematic because I think the light direction is coming from different places. But most importantly I want the light to be coming from behind. Where the halo is behind the head.

First beginning steps of creating the piece with adding slight coloration to the hair and hands:

enter image description here

I want to keep the halo effect around the head. So in some ways I would want the light to be shining from behind. But in this way I guess it would be taking away from the light that is currently shining forward. Dampening the color from the front would help with the lighting issue. But I am still kind of stumped how I would show light coming from behind. I am thinking maybe doing a faint outline around the head and hands with a lighter color to make it seem like it is illuminating. I tried this one numerous attempts. It seemed like it was doing well, but then I back stepped and went back over it because I second guessed myself.

My question is how to illuminate from behind to get the effect of something shining in a dark atmosphere?

This piece is being done in acrylic paints.

Second rework:
enter image description here

3 Answers 3


The light currently seems to be coming from a diffuse source a little bit above the observer's position (or slightly above the painting's 'window').
If you want the light to come from the halo, remember that being a disc the nimbus will cast a very diffuse light as well.
In the following image manipulation I added highlights (using the Dodge Tool in Photoshop) to areas directly affected by the halo's light (the hair, especially the part unobscured by the person's head, and the direct reflection of light on the person's arms):

enter image description here

These highlights can be more subtle or more harsh depending on how bright you want the halo to be. Also take into consideration that it might shine onto the floor and cast the person's (diffuse) shadow, and into the background.
Around the head single hairs will be lit up very well, although this effect will naturally be less pronounced against the halo itself.

enter image description here
Image edited from here

Initially I interpreted the halo as the neckline of a shirt. Since there are no outlines of a body in the background, it's hard to tell the shape of the body, so I would suggest changing that first:

enter image description here

Here I've made the background bright only to show a hint of where the shoulders could be visible. This can of course also be done against a dark background.

It's hard to properly paint a halo with this particular orientation of the head. In early renaissance paintings the halo is indeed usually centred behind the head and represented parallel to the viewing plane, but especially later on it was often painted in perspective relative to the orientation of the person's head. It can also be an outline instead of a disc.

enter image description here enter image description here

I think that slightly scaling down the head will help give a more naturalistic idea of the person (in some of the images above I accidentally used the smaller head):

enter image description here

Of course (as seen in this thread as well) reducing the size of the head will give the person a slightly more adult look as well, which might not be what you want.
It might also be more evident that the person's hands could now be somewhat oversized, but I feel that actually adds to the expressionistic character of the painting.

  • 1
    Maybe I am taken back by the halo thought, after your description. I was having proportion issues, and was down-scaling already(haha?!). I will ponder the input and do really appreciate it.
    – Lyssagal
    Jun 8, 2022 at 13:54
  • @Lyssagal If I haven't addressed all of your concerns, please let me know.
    – Joachim
    Jun 8, 2022 at 15:56

Quick tip for lighting from behind a subject: reverse the placement of lights and shadows.

When painting a human you usually have highlighted areas in the front of the body and on top of the shoulders. Shadows are usually at the edges of limbs. If I cut a vertical strip from your painting that includes both arms I get:

  • A small shadow at the very top of the upper arm
  • Light in the center of the upper arm
  • Shadow at the bottom edge of the upper arm and the upper edge of the lower arm
  • Again, light in the center of the lower arm
  • Deep shadow at the bottom of the lower arm, because the least bit of light reaches there

But this is illuminated from the front. There doesn't seem to be any light coming from behind the figure, because any areas that face back are in shadows.

To have the light coming from behind, you need to change the order of shadows and highlights as follows:

  • The upper edge of the upper arm must have the brightest highlights. This is where most of the light from behind is visible. There is no dark outline at this edge at all, because all the light comes from behind.
  • The center of the arm can probably stay as it is now (medium light)
  • Anything below the ulna needs to be in shadow, because light from behind cannot reach there. The shadow between both arms gets bigger.
  • The lower arm should only have a narrow highlight (medium light) at about 1/3rd of the height. It still gets some light from behind, but it's also in the shadow of the upper arm.
  • The lower edge of the lower arm is in deep shadow.

Same thing with the trousers. If there is a light source behind that person, the outer edges of the trousers should be much brighter. If the halo is the light source then the top of the drawn up legs and the feet need to be lighter than they are now.


The term used for high contrast between light and dark in artwork is called chiaroscuro. The ability to make an object appear three dimensional using light and dark contrasts.

Some examples I found of this to help are famous paintings to give the same/similar effects are:

  • The Matchmaker by Gerrit van Honthorst, 1625
  • Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, by Georges de La Tour, c. 1640
  • The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

Looking at these images, such as "The Matchmaker" there is over 50% darkness in this painting. But if you look at the edges of the individual in the center foreground you can see that the light is slightly outlining the character. Around her face, hands and even into her dress. In all three cases each one has bending of light and gradient of colors smoothed in.

"The Smoking Flame" the light source is not coming from behind the character but you are able to see how the light effects the woman sitting beside the candle and how the thin lines of light come from her legs, and the light shining on her arms and how the skull is effected by the light coming from behind it.

I wanted to throw in "The Potato Eater" because the front center character is experiencing a light source that is coming from behind. He added a light haze around the character. Notably around the characters head. To show that the character is effected by the light source. You can also notice details in the center character of her clothing. It is still quite dark but visible with the eye. Compared to "The Matchmaker" which is quite dark in color and not able to see a lot of detail. The viewer is able to observer that there are medium grays in the dress, and even yellow reflected of the characters face.

TLDR; My final note is that when it comes to dark paintings and light. The object or character that is being hit by the light, the closer the object is to the light source will appear the brightest. The further away the object is away from the light source the darker it becomes because it is further away.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiaroscuro
I started looking on duckduckgo: "Famous dark paintings with light" which first popped up "The Matchmaker"

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