Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pyle on Light and Shadow

Today we continue looking at Koerner's notes from Howard Pyle.


All things in sunlight are lighter than white in shadow. (See GurneyJourney post on this subject, link.)

A picture is more articulate where the light is concentrated on certain part rather than on all of it.

In a diffuse light everything is soft and close in tone.

Treat lamplight similar to sunlight, only shadows are denser.


Keep your shadows the same strength.

If you face strong sunlight in a picture your color is in your shadows.

In painting anything, don’t get different qualities in your shadow.

After picture is right in tone, finish up by studying edges and keep your shadows out of the light.

If two or more figures are together you can bind them together by running a shadow of same strength from one to the other.
Images from the Atheneum, link.


Lee Tao said...

these pointers are awesome, I'm going to try them out right now so I don't forget them.

More please =)

David Still said...

"In painting anything, don’t get different qualities in your shadow."

This confuses me. What does he mean? Different tones, different colour?

Mystica's Light said...

I'm thrilled to have found your insightful and practical blog. I really appreciate the tip about running the same colour shadow as a tool to connect objects. Great for watercolour paintings!
Blessings of LIGHT to you,

Unknown said...

I like the advice about keeping the shadows the same strength - I just realized that I need to work on that!

Ian Schoenherr said...

I have some more of Pyle's adages on light and shadow if you'd like to hear them. Of course, all would be clearer if we could see the particular works he was discussing. Anyway, here is what Bertha Corson Day recorded:

"In the street all horizontal planes are much higher in value than the vertical."

"On a cloudy day the sky is the highest light."

"In sunlight exaggerate the simplicity of effects."

"Strength is NOT PRODUCED by strong contrasts."

"Draw the shadows and the lights will take care of themselves."

And from Allen Tupper True:

"I think of the sky as the source of light and this light lifting things out of the world's gloom produces form."

"Always remember this. The lights carry the color and texture and the shadows the form. A shadow is the absence of form."

Pyle said something similar to - and more succinctly than - the last quote (as recalled by Ethel Pennewill Brown or Olive Rush): "Lights define texture and color - shadows define form."

kev ferrara said...

Ian, you have my eternal gratitude for making those bits of wisdom available.

Where, by chance did you happen upon Bertha Corson Day's and Allen Tupper True's notes?

If you have any more notes from them, of any other of Pyle's students that you would like to share that would be wonderful. Not just on light and shadow, but on anything, really! It's all great stuff! :)

Erik Bongers said...

Hmm, critical me again.

In the second example painting, I feel he didn't apply his own rules enough.
The figures seem to be cut-and-pasted on top of the beach.

He should have applied the rule "In a diffuse light everything is soft and close in tone."
A bit of (soft) shadow around the legs and shoes would have helped a lot to bring figures and sand more "close in tone".

Gregory Becker said...

These are my favorite posts. I get to learn more about how light behaves and having a firm grip on those kinds of principles can really thrust you into new artistic territory.
More More More

jeff jordan said...

I seem to want transparent shadows that are lively and variable, depending on what they fall on, how close they are to the object that casts the shadow, time of day, etc. In that I disagree with Pyle. I learned highlights are opaque, shadows transparent. Works better for me......
Also each person probably interprets the adage in a different way, so it becomes something akin to six blind men describing six different objects, not realizing they're all touching an elephant.....

Jesse Hamm said...

"Treat lamplight similar to sunlight, only shadows are denser."I guess by "denser" he means there's less reflected light in them?

António Araújo said...

These quotes are extremely interesting and useful, but let me be a little bit of a bore and pick on a misconception some people have with regard to such things.

>All things in sunlight are >lighter than white in shadow.

this is quite false as a physical assertion. Consider a (matte) black object in sunlight. It will still be black, and therefore darker than many things in shadow (it has to be matte - you could get out of the specular angle of the sun and the object could be really smooth, but the sky's relection covers just about every angle so you still get a specular reflection).
This is an extreme case but it proves the point. Now just fiddle with the parameters (a dark enough matte cape in sunlight compared with a white object in a shadow strongly lit by a reflector) and you have a real life counterexample. (The "reflector" is not cheating, anything in shadow is only seen because there is always some background reflection, so it's just a question of how much.)

>(See GurneyJourney post on this >subject)

Actually on that post what you show is that the acrylic black is not really black at all :). Apart from white balance errors, it's probably a dark blue. Or, it is not matte, and it is reflecting the sky. Even if the surface was totally smooth and you avoided the reflcting angle with regard to the sun, you'd still have the sky as a reflective secondary lightsource eveywhere (and that's why Pyle states sunlight and not just light - the sun is not the important part, it's the sky's reflection that makes the statement true in *most* circumstances)

But you know all this. My point is that many people tend to think these rules are laws of nature. They are not. They are statements on

1) what you will casually observe in ordinary circumstance (i.e., they seem true most of the time)

2) most importantly, and I guess that's how Pyle means it, they are statements on how to make a good composition: how to simplify in order to make it readable and strong.

The confusion between reality and good thumbrules happens a lot in art instruction. I rememeber a teacher of mine who used to say, quite in awe of nature, "it's amazing how the proportions of he face follow simple ratios. Brow to base of nose equals base of nose to chin, base of nose width equals eyelenght, etc. And everything else is in a ratio of 1/2, or 1/3, never anything more precise". Which is asolutely false as you can see in any antropometry study. We use 1/2, 1/3, not because of nature's simplicity, but because of our inability to measure, without instruments, anything more precise than that (artist to nature: it's not you, it's me). But then students don't get that and you'll watch them insist that they can see how those ratios apply in the model precisely. Of course, their definition (or, most irritating, the definitition in most portraiture books) of what is the browline is so vague and their cyclopic fiddling with the thumb on the brush gives such imprecise measurements that you can fit just about anything to their preconceptions. That also explains a lot of the "golden ratios" that some artists see all around them in nature (some are there, per morphogenesis, but a lot are just wishful thinking, and I love those "proofs" where they measure a couple of (integer) lengths, divide them, and state it's "clearly" the (irrational) golden ratio). :)

António Araújo said...

>"Treat lamplight similar to >sunlight, only shadows are >denser."I guess by "denser" he >means there's less reflected >light in them?

I suppose so. It goes to show that the operative word in the previous bit of advice is not "sunlight" but "sky".

When you have lamplight, the light doesn't reflect noticeably on the sky, obviously (in spite of amateur photographer'/tourists attempts to light up monuments and bridges - and the whole universe! - with their camera flashes at night :)). In sunlight you get the whole sky as a secondary lightsource, floding your shadows from every angle, while lamplight will only flood shadows with reflection from nearby objects.

Jean Spitzer said...

This stuff is fascinating, especially the last bits in the comments about general rules. You really do need to look hard at things; rules only take you part of the way.

James Gurney said...

OMWO--you do a good job of explaining why we shouldn't apply these rules dogmatically. Pyle was certainly aware of the exceptions and contradictions, and perhaps that's why he didn't write down these "rules."

It's also funny how he talks so much about direct light and shadow effects when most of his paintings seem to be set in indirect or overcast light.

Ian, those additional quotes are very helpful, and thanks, everyone for your insightful comments.