Sunday, May 20, 2018

How should I paint the light in shadows?

Blog reader Ewan Lamont says:
"I was interested to read that you 'need to tell myself to paint the shadows darker than they appear, because the tendency (for me at least) is to overstate the fill and reflected light'. John Ruskin noted that the human eye is far more sensitive to light than photographic paper (I am not sure about digital arrays of sensors) and wanted artists to paint what they could see in shadows and which was invisible in the dark shadows of photographs where shaded details did not register. He also deplored the Claude glass for the same reason."

John Sell Cotman, Chirk Aqueduct, 1806-7
Thanks for those interesting thoughts. Ruskin is correct in saying that our eyes can see more light in shadows than cameras can see, especially any cameras that he would have known. 19th century cameras had much less latitude than modern digital cameras are capable of. He's also right that usually we want to avoid indiscriminately copying black shadows in pictures.

But lighting and value organization were never Ruskin's strengths, so I take his opinions about light and shadow with a grain of salt here. I would hesitate to draw any single conclusion about how to treat the light in in the shadows in a picture. There are times you may want to paint shadows black, especially if you want drama. Other times you might want to flood the shadows with variations and bleach the lights. It depends on the nature of the lighting and your goals in a given study or painting.

If my goal in a picture is to capture a sense of light, I'll want to group the shadows and separate them from the lights. I think John Sell Cotman does that beautifully in the painting above. The tones in the shadow are kept together, even though they're not too black. Using a (Claude) Lorrain mirror can help in seeing these tonal relationships. It shows the darks all merged together as a mass -- even though you don't have to paint them as black as you see them.

And look how Cotman unifies the illuminated areas at the base of the aqueduct. It would have been very tempting to put a lot of dark accents and texture into those lights.

Let me leave you with these three suggestions:
1. Paint gives us a very limited scale of values to work with, so management of tone is essential.
2. To achieve a feeling of light, focus on grouping the shadows, simplifying them, and separating them from the lights. 
3. Your reference won't give you the value organization. You have to invent it. It requires a leap of your imagination and a remarkable level of discipline to pull it off. 


Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

And Ewan, I would add to James' tips on shadows...

4. The lightest value within a shadow (mass) will not be as light as the darkest value in the light (mass). Well, almost never. While the first part is often expressed as a truism, there are rare times when you may think you see an exception, or find it helpful to your painting to violate this truism. But you should make your decision to do so out of knowledge and not by ignorance, or worse, inattention.

5. I don't think Ruskin ever addressed my next point since he was a tonal painter (draftsperson/watercolorist, actually) and the aesthetic he championed was a largely focused upon structuring a painting with value-based distinctions – but just as the values within a shadow mass groups together, the corresponding 'temperature mass' of those same values will also group together. So, if there is a single (warm) light source, i.e., the sun, your shadow mass will appear to be cooler in relationship to the light mass. More blue or violet(ish) – assuming we are talking about direct sunlight and not indirect sunlight filtering through a layer of clouds. Are there exceptions to this warm/cool principle too? Well, yes. But again, they are subtle and must be observed directly to be fully understood.

Why? Because shadows become more complicated in real life, especially when you wish to express the variation of temperature or color that may be reflecting into them. But if you are working from a photographic reference that has significantly altered or blocked up the shadow masses, and most photographic references will do that, then you can apply Jame's first three principles, with my following two, and end up with a credible representation of natural light.

Then again, going outside to paint in situ is good too. ;-)

All the best with your future efforts!...


Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Apologies James. I meant James', not Jame's in my last paragraph... TJK

scottT said...

Great post James. I believe a simplified arrangement of positive and negative shapes separated by distinct light and dark values is one key to a strong picture. And inventing such a plan and sticking to it is a main avenue of artistic creativity.

Speaking of photography, it can be similar to painting in that a choice is often made to show shadow detail at the expense of detail in the lights, and vice versa. I think this "limitation" can actually make for better design sometimes since it can be used to guide the viewer's eye the the point of interest.

Russell Starr said...

I'm always amazed how much more to a painting there is than the image you see. Great posts!