Thursday, March 2, 2017

Flat Shadows vs. Flat Lights

Dylan says: "I was looking at your awesome blog and found the post about Sargent's Escutcheon. A point you made is that he captured the brilliance of the light by flattening the lights and keeping the majority of the modeling and chroma shifts in the shadows. Up until now I've always been used to blocking the shadows first, and kind of doing the opposite; keeping the shadows flat and keeping the variations in the lighted areas."

The heraldic insignia or escutcheon of Charles V of Spain, 
part of a sixteenth century fountain at the Alhambra in Granada

"For myself," Dylan continues, "this has more or less become a method of capturing form, but I was wondering if you know of a context where this would fit an actual scene, as the flat lights fit the bright and sunny scene. Or, if there isn't a real-world context, how do you think the flat darks could be used best? I'm not married to the idea of flattening my darks, but rather I'd like to use it to its most usefulness, as well as introducing the flat lights approach to my process. If you have any thoughts on this, or know where I might be able to read about this, I'd be eternally grateful. Thanks for getting this far!"
Dylan, this is a really interesting question, and it crossed my mind as I was writing the post, because I'm kind of a "flat-shadow" guy for the most part. If I can give a very quick answer, I'd say that the flat shadow approach is better for conveying low-light impressions of form, especially for portraits, while burned out lights and opened shadows convey a feeling of light. This is particularly powerful in landscape where you want to emphasize the warm and cool contrasts in the shadow. Form is a Force of art, but Light is a Force, too. Depends on what your pictorial idea demands.

If you're a photographer, you might say this thinking is analogous to exposing for the lights vs. exposing for the shadows. One will crush the darks and the other will clip the lights.
The painting is called "Escutcheon of Charles V of Spain" by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
Date: 1912, Medium: Watercolor and graphite on white wove paper. Dimensions: 12 x 18 in. (30.5 x 45.7 cm) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.


David Webb said...

I love this painting. It's one of my favourite John Singer Sargent watercolours. If anyone ever asks what is meant by reflected light, I produce a copy of this. It's a lesson in itself.

Robert Cosgrove said...

The Watercolorist Frank Webb offers some thoughts on this issue on p. 22 of his book, Watercolor Energies (North Light, 1983).

To quote in pertinent part, " . . . Choose key with a clear understanding of the limitations of tone in paint. Showing a wider range and nuances among the lighter tones will be done at the expense of the range in the darks, producing a low key painting in the manner of Rembrandt. The opposite is also true, for the range among the lights is reduced when diversity is sought among the darks. Turner's high key painting exemplifies this.

"Most moderns embrace the Turner idea, which seeks true tonal relationships of shade and shadow, while diminishing the range among the higher midtowns and the lights. Attempts to include both ends of the scale eliminate the mid tone which is the carrier or body containing and making readable the darks and lights. The loss of midtown sacrifices color opportunities."

S. Stipick said...

Stop modeling as I have heard it called in conversation. Another example of this is in the Bargue Instructional Course, especially the beginning plates but all throughout the book with exceptions made in the master drawing portions. The modeling happens mostly within the shadow values and halftone, occasionally the dark light. The idea behind the name, as I understand it (someone please correct me if I am wrong), is that the artist literally "stops modeling form factors at certain desired place." In Bargues' case, that happens just after the halftone.

I think the main use would be to intentionally create an area of high contrast against an area of detailed modeling. The large white areas, being empty, lead the eye back to the heavily rendered sections. Since there are clear areas of defined value structure, the eye can interpret form where there is none. It also leaves the optical boundaries intact along the empty areas, creating a dynamic lost and found edge as the line dances from shadow to light..

I believe that this is a stylistic choice an artist must make during the process, understanding that while ideal in some circumstances, it may be an improper choice during others. Like anything, it's another tool, use it when it works and be prepared to walk away from it if it doesn't. The brilliance of Sargent's virtuosity is that he could pick up a technique and then completely abandon it depending on his needs. Did he ever seem beholden to a particular way of working? I'm am curious about others opinions on this. It seems that often in the realm of watercolor, stop modeling was a regular go too for him and a frequently used tool, but used far more sparingly in his oil works. Which leaves me to wonder if the working methodology of stop modeling might be well suited for watercolor, considering the attributes of the medium? Thoughts?

Don Ketchek said...

I have always heard that one should choose - either the lights or the darks - to have more variation in values. Having a wide range in both becomes too busy - and is not how the eye sees. I would ask the question - what is more important in my painting - the shadow areas or the lights? Put more emphasis (and thus the greater value range and perhaps color, too) on the one that is most important. That's my opinion.

James Gurney said...

Great discussion, everyone. The Frank Webb quote that Robert shared puts the issue well and places it in a historical context.

As Don said, you kind of have to choose one or the other way of modeling. Which way you go depends on the kind of picture you want to do. Darker pictures, especially portraits, have most of the modeling in the halftones.

According to Carl Samson, R. Ives Gammell used to say to his students regarding shadows: "Make them flat. Flat as a hat! Flatter than that." His work was of the Paxton school, often dealing with richly modeled lights.

S. Stipick, I like the way you put it. I'd say that intentional grouping of values is one of the most important skills to learn to improve composition.

David, yes, if the reflected light is the subject, then bleach—or burn out—or group together—the lights.

Jennifer Branch said...

I love this painting! I always think of it with any kind of intricate stonework. It helps me cut down on unnecessary details.
I think the most obvious flat overblown light scene is a bright beach scene. With white sand and reflected light, anything that's not deep shadow is simply another highlight.