Student View

Luminous Choices

How do these modern artists work with light?

When you look at an artwork, think about how the artist uses light as a tool. Ask questions about what the highlights and shadows add to the scene. Do they emphasize part of the work? If so, why might the artist have made that choice? 

Whether sharing a story, making a powerful statement, or studying details of daily life, the 20th-century artists featured on these pages understand how to use light as a tool to illustrate their ideas. 

Light might seem purely practical, but it also has the potential to add brilliance and drama to a work of art.

As you look at the art on these pages, take note of how each artist explores light. Are they using highlights and shadows to draw your attention to certain parts of their work? 

These modern artists use light as a tool to shape their ideas. Keep reading to learn how working with light allows artists to share stories, make powerful statements, or study daily life. 

Balthus (Klossowski de Rola, B.) (1908-2001). The Mountain, 1936-37. Oil on canvas, 98x144in. (248x 365cm). Purchase, Gifts of Mr. and Mrs. Nate B. Spingold and Nathan Cummings, Rogers Fund and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Fund, by exchange, and Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1982 (1982.530). Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.

How does Balthus use light to emphasize his subjects?

Mountain Narrative

In the 1930s, the French artist Balthus (bal-TOOS) intended to paint a series of four landscapes depicting the seasons. His 1936-1937 The Mountain, above, originally titled Summer, is the first and only work he completed for this series. In The Mountain, the artist depicts mountains in Switzerland that he visited as a child. 

Balthus uses light to craft a mysterious narrative. He divides the composition in two: the shadowed foreground and the luminous middle ground and background. The warm summer light illuminates details that are farther away, like the cliff’s rough textures and the hikers in the background.

Balthus uses light and shadow to move the viewer’s eye from one figure to the next. He builds the scene this way to make the viewer curious about the narrative. Who are these people? Why are they on the mountain, and what are their relationships to one another?

In the 1930s, a French artist named Balthus (bal-TOOSS) wanted to paint a series of paintings dedicated to the seasons. The Mountain, above, is the only one he finished. At first, he titled the landscape Summer. In this work, Balthus uses light to build a mysterious narrative, or story. 

The artist paints the foreground in shadow. He shows the middle ground and background in bright sunlight. The warm summer light emphasizes the cliffs’ rough textures and the hikers in the background. Balthus uses light and shadow to guide the viewer’s attention to each of the figures. This might make you curious about the narrative. Who are these people? Why are they on the mountain? Do you think they know one another?

Aaron Douglas (1899–1979), Aspiration, 1936. Oil on canvas, 60x60in. (152.4x152.4cm) The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, the estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs Jr., the Museum Society Auxiliary, American Art Trust Fund, Unrestricted Art Trust Fund, partial gift of Dr. Ernest A. Bates, Sharon Bell, Jo-Ann Beverly, Barbara Carleton, Dr. And Mrs. Arthur H. Coleman, Dr. and Mrs. Coyness Ennix, Jr., Nicole Y. Ennix, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Francois, Dennis L. Franklin, Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell C. Gillette, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Goodyear, Zuretti L. Goosby, Marion E. Greene, Mrs. Vivian S. W. Hambrick, Laurie Gibbs Harris, Arlene Hollis, Louis A. and Letha Jeanpierre, Daniel and Jackie Johnson, Jr., Stephen L. Johnson, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Lathan, Lewis & Ribbs Mortuary Garden Chapel, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Love, Glenn R. Nance, Mr. and Mrs. Harry S. Parker III, Mr. and Mrs. Carr T. Preston, Fannie Preston, Pamela R. Ransom, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin F. Reed, San Francisco Black Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco Chapter of Links, Inc., San Francisco Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Dr. Ella Mae Simmons, Mr. Calvin R. Swinson, Joseph B. Williams, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred S. Wilsey, and the people of the Bay Area, 1997.84  Image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 2020 Heirs of Aaron Douglas/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

How does Douglas work with symbols in his painting?

Looking Toward the Light

Aaron Douglas worked during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ’30s. During this period, African American artists, writers, and musicians in Harlem, a New York City neighborhood, expressed ideas about Black people’s shared experiences in the United States. In his 1936 Aspiration, above, Douglas uses light to represent the journey to freedom. 

In the foreground, Douglas paints hands bound in chains and shrouded in dark shadows, symbolizing enslavement. Above the hands, light bursts from a star, representing the North Star, which led many escaped enslaved Black people to freedom before the Civil War. In the center, the artist renders three silhouettes. One of the figures points toward a bright, modern city on a hill. Douglas leads the viewer’s eye from the shadowed past at the bottom of the composition to a bright, hopeful future at the top.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Aaron Douglas worked during the Harlem Renaissance. This period in history took place in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. There, African American artists expressed ideas about Black people’s experiences in the United States. 

In Douglas’s 1936 painting Aspiration, above, he uses light to show enslaved Black people’s journey to freedom.

In the foreground, Douglas paints chained hands and dark shadows. These images symbolize enslavement. In the middle ground, light shines from a star. This stands for the North Star, which helped guide many enslaved Black people to freedom. Douglas paints three people in the center. One of them points toward a bright, modern city. Douglas leads the viewer’s eye from the dark past at the bottom of the painting to a hopeful future at the top.

Janet Fish (b. 1938) Apples, 1972. Pastel. 18 1/8x23 13/16in. (46x60.5cm). Gift of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler (Class of 1947). 1996.51 Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, U.S.A. Licensed by VAGA at ARS, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo Credit: Davis Museum at Wellesley College/Art Resource, NY.

How does Fish render reflections in her still life?

Supermarket Still Life

Many of Janet Fish’s still lifes feature objects with transparent surfaces. To create her 1972 Apples, above, the American artist draws apples in plastic wrap, like you might see at the grocery store. This study explores the effects of light on objects. 

“Plastic wrap catches the light and creates fascinating reflections,” Fish says. “I liked the way the plastic was going over the solid objects, and I liked how it broke the forms up.” Fish adds white highlights on the surface of the plastic, illustrating the reflections made by a light source outside the picture plane. These highlights, as well as the shadows, function like countour lines describing each apple’s form. Fish emphasizes the negative space between the apples by showing the highlights on the plastic stretching between them. 

Before you begin reading Radiant Ideas, use what you’ve learned to think about how and why each featured artist uses light. 

Janet Fish includes transparent objects, like plastic, in her still lifes. In Apples, above, Fish draws apples in plastic wrap, like you might see at the supermarket. The 1972 work explores how light affects the objects. “Plastic wrap catches the light and creates fascinating reflections,” says Fish. “I liked the way the plastic was going over the solid objects . . .”

Fish sketches highlights on the plastic to show reflections made by a light source. They stretch across the plastic, drawing attention to space between the fruits. 

Before you begin reading Radiant Ideas, use what you’ve learned to think about how and why each featured artist uses light. 

Back to top
videos (1)
Skills Sheets (11)
Skills Sheets (11)
Skills Sheets (11)
Skills Sheets (11)
Skills Sheets (11)
Skills Sheets (11)
Skills Sheets (11)
Skills Sheets (11)
Skills Sheets (11)
Skills Sheets (11)
Skills Sheets (11)
Lesson Plan (6)
Lesson Plan (6)
Lesson Plan (6)
Lesson Plan (6)
Lesson Plan (6)
Lesson Plan (6)