How To Create Dynamic Lighting

Learn how to create dynamic, energized lighting and atmosphere in your artwork with these techniques from concept artist Santa Norvaisaite!

How To Create Dynamic Lighting
Santa Norvaisaite
Hello everyone, my name is Santa Norvaisaite and I’m a concept artist/illustrator working in video games, TTRPG, movies, and other creative projects. Whenever I work on an artwork, whether it’s personal or professional, I usually tend to focus on lighting and the overall mood in the scene.

Before starting to collect references, I usually consider the emotions and atmosphere I want to show in my scene, so I create a mood board specially for the light, vfx effects, colour and atmosphere. This is a separate mood board from other references I will use to create the scene.

I highly recommend looking up movie screenshots for this part, as it’s a great source of inspiration, and it can also help you come up with cool effects or a unique mood for the artwork. Film Grab is a great website for this!


Tips to creating energized lighting and effects.

Before we get started, here are a few quick points to think about:

  1. Shape it in a way which leads the viewer's eye around the composition. Try using the “free transform” tool to bend/twist the lighting into a more dynamic shape. As an example, I used this method to create the spell effect in The Sorceress artwork below.
  2. Consider that lighting is affected and interacts with the environment and weather conditions such as: wind, fog, rain, dust, snow.
  3. Really experiment and try layering the light effects with textures on top of it, look through different  layer settings, and adjust opacity. In some cases, hue or darker color modes can create a really interesting look for the lighting.
  4. When lighting is intended to be the focal point, try using multiple layers to paint in the lighting, not just colour dodge/linear dodge, but also try layering on top saturation, hue and in rare cases divide layer setting. These effects can be really strong, so make sure to reduce the opacity.

The Sorceress: Work Process

Step 1 - Concepting

I usually start with a rough sketch or photobash to test out the composition and idea. If I don’t have a specific idea in mind, I do multiple thumbnails to explore the design/values/colour palette. Sometimes I create  another sketch focusing on the mood/effects for the focal point of the scene, in this case it will be the character.

"Keep your layers rough to start and come back later to tidy up."

Step 2 - Creating a rough base

I began my artwork with layering water, rock, sky images and blending them in, and added architecture on the right side for interest. I usually keep the background layers a bit loose at this stage because I usually like to return to them and add/or reduce the details.

I decided to make my colours and lighting less intense for the background, and add an extra layer of fog over the moon, so it doesn’t take away the focus from the character, and balances the composition better.

Step 3 - Adding middle ground elements

In the next step I added foliage, props, and character in the scene. I used the character base from my sketch, to speed up my work process. I keep background and midground elements separated by fog, and a very light moon reflection. I usually use a low opacity layer setting with “screen” or “lighten” layer settings.

This is the step where I always flip my canvas to see if the composition reads well.

"My goal was to make the spell look energetic and dramatic."

Step 4 - Creating the first lighting effects

After making sure I like all the elements in the composition, I added the spell effect for the character and water texture. This is the step where I usually experiment a lot with layer settings, and various image adjustments while I added the photo textures and paint.

For this artwork, my goal was to make the spell look energetic and dramatic. To achieve this, I used Photoshop's “free transform” tool to shape the texture in a way it suggests movement. The layer settings used for the spell are “linear dodge.” I reduced the spell opacity to 70%, because I plan to layer the lighting and don’t want it to be overblown in the first layer. I also went to image settings, and adjusted the hue/saturation to achieve better colour harmony. Then I created another layer with “colour dodge” and added some sparks, and applied around 1% motion blur from filter settings.

Step 5 - Extra lighting effects

In this step, I used lasso tool and painted in some of the lighting with “linear dodge

layer” with 70% opacity, then I applied motion blur on this effect and adjusted it with “free transform” tool.  I copied the layer and set it as “colour dodge” and adjusted opacity to 60%.

Step 6 - Integrating the effects

I painted in another spell effect in characters hands, using the same workflow from step 5. I added more sparks over the effects, and started to fix shadows and lighting around the character. Then I added fog on the left side, to create better focus on the character, otherwise the scene was getting too busy.

"Don’t forget to add lighting reflections on the objects around the light to add to believability."

Step 7 - Adding foreground elements

Next I added foreground elements, to create a better depth in the scene. I chose three crows pointing/flying towards the sorceress to better frame the composition. I also painted in, photo bashed final details on the character, and fixed the spell effects. Sometimes I go back to the background, midground layers if I feel it’s missing depth, or some objects don’t work well in the scene.

In this step, don’t forget to add lighting reflections on the objects around the light source to create more sense of believability in the scene.

Step 8  - Final touches and adjustments

In this final step, I selected the layers and then used the keyboard shortcut to merge a copy of my layers onto a new layer. I duplicated this layer, and tried different colour adjustments to see if I can enhance the scene, and come up with something interesting.

Under layer settings, select create a new adjustment layer and try “photo filter setting” with different layer settings. Other colour effects I use are color balance, hue/saturation, match colour.

Colour lookup is another great tool under layer/image settings but it should be used with different layer modes, because it can cause some loss of lighting/shadow information when applying it over the image.

Stay creative, and don’t be afraid to experiment with different photoshop settings! Thank you for reading this! :)

If you want to see more of my artwork, you can see it on:

Artstation | LinkedIn