You need an area of negative space in your image for the dappled light to play. If your composition is very busy, it's hard for this lighting effect to be a focal point. So having a relatively nondescript surface, whether the ground or something else, creates a canvas for this lighting effect to play out on.
In this case, I compose a jungle scene and deliberately leave a chunk of rock for the light to play on that's low on detail and also low in value – it’s very light so I can easily apply shadow to it to begin establishing my dappled illumination.
The leaves and branches of the trees act in the same way that a gobo does on a stage light. This is an opaque mask that, when placed over the lens of a stage light, makes the light create a specific shape. Here, it's a group of shapes that are created by light passing through the trees.
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It's vital to note that there's plenty of light bouncing around in this type of environment and lighting scheme, so the shadows in your dappled light should never become too dark; there will always be secondary light sources flooding your areas in shadow.
01. Use the multiply tool
I begin by using a Multiply layer to create a mottled group of shadows that more or less create the effect of light shining through vegetation and hitting the ground; this establishes the shadows in the scene quickly without a huge amount of brushwork. It's also another opportunity to give the ground plain contour, texture and shape.
02. Work subtractively
I use the Eraser tool to work subtractively. To make the shapes of the shadows and the highlights that they contain more interesting, I knock more negative shape into them and remove some of the shadow shape. I soften some edges so that the pools of light are more diffused; the objects casting the shadows are far away from where they're falling.
03. Develop highlights
By selecting the contents of my Multiply layer and then inverting my selection, I develop a selection of the corresponding highlights. And by painting some lighter tones and colours into a hard light layer, I boost the brightness of these hot spots and create more contrast between light and dark and, subsequently, more visual interest.
Words: Jonathan Standing
Jonathan Standing is an illustrator and concept artist. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 118.
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