People often ask, “does it matter if you paint light to dark in acrylic paintings?” Yes, it does matter what order your tones are applied to the surface. Dark to light.
In watercolor because of the nature of the process of painting on white paper, you go from light tones of color to dark tones by adding layers of thin colors. However, with acrylic and oil paints, the process is reversed.
The easiest way to say it is that your shadows and darkest darks are receding into the background. We stack our colors and layers on top of the darks so that the brightest tones are on top, just as in real life.
Let’s Examine Perfection
From the master himself, Vincent Van Gogh, we see the perfect application of dark values first. Then as each layer of lighter tones of color is added, the dark recedes into the background. If this is reversed, the black or dark looks pasted onto the surface and breaks the picture. Your brain will compare it to reality and reject the improper use of tone immediately.
Unsettling Light to Dark
As we see above, by putting dark on light, the painting looks first like a poster and second, it looks like a silhouette of objects in the foreground on a backlit surface. Now if your painting is to create that effect, great.
My point is that by putting darkest tones on top looks unnatural. I had to look really hard to find an example of dark on light to illustrate for you. So it’s no secret, the proper sequence of tones is from dark to light. One last example of dark to light for you below.
Thanks to Renoir, we have a great example of dark on light. the blue on the little sister illustrates the point nicely for us. The blue patches on the girl’s shirt look pasted on and unnatural. Hey, even the masters made mistakes. But when our paintings are worth millions, we can do as we like too.