Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Beams of sunlight coming from the sky can be an inspiring effect when you see them in nature.

I painted this scene from observation on a cloudy day at the Mamaroneck Harbor in New York State. The rays seem to radiate from the area of the sun, but actually they’re essentially parallel, and we’re looking at them in perspective.

The effect should be used sparingly in fantasy paintings, because it can easily become a tired cliché. Maybe that’s because it is so often overused to suggest the glory of heaven, or because it shows up in paintings when the conditions aren’t completely suitable.

Beams of light occur when the following three conditions are met:

  1. A high screen of clouds, foliage, or architecture is punctured by a few openings. The canopy must block most of the light to allow a darker backdrop against which the sunbeams can be seen.
  2. The air is filled with dust or vapor. The smaller the particles, the more there will be chromatic scattering, making the light source seem more yellow or red (see link). Watery mist won’t affect the color of the light as much as fine dust.
  3. The view is toward the sun. Large droplets scatter most of the light forward at small angles to the direction of the light. When you’re looking away from the light source, the beams become invisible.

The conditions might exist in a circus tent, a ruined building, or a dark forest interior. As with dappled light, the farther away the aperture, the more the edges of the beam become diffused by the time they reach the ground. You won’t see a sunbeam from a far cloud making a small spot of light on someone’s lawn.

Keep in mind, too, that sunbeams from a cloudy source, like the Bierstadt above, are shining through an uneven aperture, making three dimensional columns of light with an amoeba-like cross-section. This has the effect of making the edges and amounts of light extremely variable.

I used the sunbeam effect in Dinotopia: The World Beneath because I really wanted the scene to look magical, and I wanted the humans at left to be at a disadvantage, looking into a bright illumination.

Note that the sunbeam affects the shadow values of the forms even more than the values of the light side. You could accomplish this in acrylic by airbrushing a light tone where the beams appear, but white pigment overlaid will tend to make the colors look chalky.

In this oil painting, I premixed one string of colors for the areas inside the light beam, and a whole separate string for the colors of the darker unlit forest.

Related GJ posts on dappled light, link and chromatic effects of dust, link.
Albert Bierstadt from the San Antonio Museum of Art, link.

Tomorrow: Art By Committee


Paolo Rivera said...

Ha! I'm literally trying to decide right now whether or not to use sunbeams in a painting. I've got the right "conditions," but I don't want it to look too cheesy. I might just go with it.

Carly said...

Mamaroneck Harbor! I live right near there and have played some memorable softball games on the neighboring field

Dag said...

Hi James,
firstly, it's really nice to you to put articles like that on your blog, it's explain a lot of things!!

I just want to know some things about Dinotopia.
In France except on amazon or sell sites, did you think i can find it?

I saw that there are 2 books, did you do just illustrations or this is you who create dinotopia's universe?
I got dinotopia's dvds and i really like the story and the fact to put humans and dinosaurs together!!!!

Sorry for askin that on your blog!!!
Have a nice day

James Gurney said...

Bonjour, Dag,

The newest Dinotopia book, "Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara" will be published in France by Editions Fleurus in October, 2008, and there will be a large exhibit of Dinotopia original art opening October 4 at the Maison d'Ailleurs museum in Yverdon, Switzerland.

The first book, Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time, was published in France by Albin Michel in 1992, but is now out of print. There are English language copies for sale in the USA from the Dinotopia Store at www.dinotopia.com, but unfortunately only in this country because of the high cost of shipping.

And yes, I am the author, illustrator, and creator of these books and Dinotopia. I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. Thanks for visiting.

Dag said...

Thanks a lot for your answers and it's a great pleasure to talk with you :)
Dinotopia is a very great idea, when i saw the serial i was "oh fuck, the man who creates that is a genious!!", and when i saw the site with all the games creates for dinotopia's kids and all the stuffs, i was like a kid myself!!!

For the book i'll wait until "Journey to Chandara" maybe they'll reprint the first...