Light on Form for Botanical Artists & Natural Science Illustrators

Reflected Highlights & Cast Shadows


I just recently taught a class at the New York Botanical Garden on Light on Form. This topic is always a "hot" one as there is no definitive book on the subject and every teacher I know has a different approach. I tell my students that it is like the Bible. Each teacher has their own way of conveying it, thus the gospel according to……….

I just got an e-mail from a student and she inquired about reflected highlights. Her question was:

Will the reflective light always be on the right side of the object?  Or will it be near the darkest tone?

Notice on the sphere that the reflected highlight starts and stops just about where the cast shadow begins and ends. The interior which is darker does not have the reflected highlight in it.

I really like this photograph because it is very clear where the reflected highlight is. Many botanical artists and natural science illustrators do not use reflected highlights or cast shadows in their work and I think it is a mistake. If your object is on a surface you MUST put them in because they will float in mid air without them. Often floater's as I call them, are found in this type of illustration but sometimes the objects are shown on a table etc…  The sphere above has a big dramatic shadow because it is a photograph and the camera recorded exactly what it saw. An artist/illustrator has the advantage of taking artistic license and making the shadows less pronounced. A minimal cast shadow still grounds the object but keeps the main focal point on the object.

I also like to use cast shadows and reflected light on my plants that are floating in space. Notice on the artichoke that there is a cast shadow from each leaflet to the next. The shadow even takes on the shape of what it is casting onto. These little details will greatly enhance your work.

Do any of you out there have any input on how you use light, reflected highlights and shadows in your work? I would love to hear from you.