The Pursuit of Light | How to Paint Figurative Art Like the Masters

Daniel Gerhartz shares paintings that illustrate tips for assessing your subject in order to most accurately relay the correct values and edges. Apply it to figurative art, still life paintings, and other subjects as well.

By Daniel Gerhartz

As an artist, continuing education is necessary and critical to my development. My primary means of gaining new information has been to visit museums here and abroad, and absorb the works of the masters. I have studied, copied, and dug deep to try to understand how they solved problems, and how their explorations can offer insight into ways I deal with matters of light and form.

As I reflect on what I have seen and experienced, one question I always try to ask is, “What were the works that most moved me?” What was this element, I wondered, that courted my soul and set my sense of wonder astir? I believe it was the convincing effect of light captured by the artist. When I refer to the “effect of light,” I don’t necessarily mean just a strong, bright source of light, but instead one that is perhaps the most subtle trace of twilight light, or the soft coolness of an overcast afternoon.

How to paint like the masters - figurative art
Daniel Gerhartz, “She Is Not Gone,” oil on linen, 60 x 48 in.

Here are a few works that help illustrate valuable tips I have learned to assess the subject in order to most accurately relay the correct values and edges.

To be able to see the correct relationships of form, value, and edge, the first and most important technique is the act of squinting at the subject.

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How to paint like the masters
Daniel Gerhartz, “Autumn’s Last Harvest,” oil on linen, 30 x 24 in.

In terms of value, once you have identified the extremes in value through squinting, it is crucial at the beginning stage of your painting or drawing to render in the lightest lights and darkest darks. You can then use these extremes to judge every other value relationship. The reason we use the extremes as benchmarks is that they are the easiest to identify. It is very hard to judge the middle values when the extremes are not in place. Often if one begins without these benchmarks, the piece can start out too dark or light in the overall light tone of the form. Every other subsequent value is then misplaced, throwing off the whole effect of light. This is a common mistake, particularly when working with an extreme light source such as candlelight, sunset, or backlight.

How to paint like the masters - figurative art
Daniel Gerhartz, “Golden Light,” oil on linen, 16 x 12 in.

Figurative Art: Golden Light

As in the painting “Golden Light,” if the overall values of the model’s face and white blouse had not been keyed dark enough, there would not be enough light left in the value range to accomplish the striking brilliance of her backlit hair.

How to paint like the masters
Daniel Gerhartz, “Rain,” oil, 60 x 30 in.

Keep in mind that if you intend to transpose the key to either a high or low key work, the extremes in value may not go from a number one to a number ten in value. Transposing will not be detrimental to the effect of light, but will simply shift the key. The relationship between the values is the critical element.

Much the same can be said about the approach to accurately assessing the edge relationships. One must squint at the subject to allow the hardest edges to emerge, and then establish them on the canvas as early in the process as possible. Again, this provides an extreme against which to judge other edges.

All of this brings me back to where I started. Allow yourself to be mesmerized by the sense of falling light, strive to be honest in your approach to the subject, submit to the subtlety, and record the beauty you see.

As my breath was taken away by the works of the masters because of their genius with light, perhaps someone may experience a work of yours one day and feel the same.

About Daniel Gerhartz
For more information about Daniel Gerhartz, his paintings, workshops, and publications, please visit his website at

How to paint like the masters Let Daniel Gerhartz teach you how to paint with this art video workshop!

As Gerhartz works his way through this studio painting from start to finish, he gives an in-depth discussion as to his technical approach and what aesthetically inspires him.

Learn about the oil painting workshop “Her Mother’s Locket” here!


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