The Paradox of Light
Darkness Reveals the Radiance Within
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In the greater world, the forces of light and dark are dancing the same yin-yang ballet they have followed since life began. We need darkness in order to perceive light. Light reveals and shadow veils, connects, and obscures. Shadows provide depth, complexity, and dimension, they provoke introspection, courage, and silence.
Our souls find meaning in this interplay of joy and sorrow, hope and despair, vulnerability and resistance. Our inner world is populated with multitudes - inner goddesses, wounded children, rebellious teenagers, cunning demons, and fearless warriors... When we embrace our own shadow, the dark and wounded aspects of our psyche feel safe enough to enter into the light for healing. Light is a metaphor artists use to contemplate the radiance of the soul and shadow reminds us to embrace the totality of our human experience.
In the realm of art, luminous light serves to mirror our hope, joys, sorrows, and aspirations. Light symbolizes grace, beauty, and truth. It conveys the ephemeral nature of the soul.
Darkness and shadow provide contrast and evoke emotional recognition deep within. Using the alchemy of light and shadow an artist’s vision of reality becomes a prism through which it is possible to witness the world anew and experience the emotions, memories, and perceptions of our shared humanity
Regardless of the subject matter, this interplay between light and darkness is our metaphor to convey the very essence of the soul. Many artists have become so absorbed in their quest to master the representation of light on canvas that they felt even one complete lifetime was not enough to master it. In fact, many of the great masters of the past have made light their central subject rather than just being guided by how light transforms things.
In the late 19th century an art movement arose out of the Hudson River School of Art called Luminism. Artists in this style aligned with the Transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in their desire to immerse themselves in nature to know themselves and the divine.
Most Luminist paintings emphasize tranquility and depict land or waterscapes with calm reflective water. Characteristic hazy skies depicting the effects of natural light on the landscape take up more than half of the composition. Luminists use glowing light to capture moments in time through the use of atmospheric perspective and concealed brushstrokes. April Gornik said, "I began to see that the luminists... attempted to recreate a landscape's experience for the viewer...Their paintings were not so much depictions as they were complex machines of special effects." A 1980 National Gallery exhibition of Luminist art influenced many contemporary artists to embrace and expand on these questions in new and interesting ways.
Some living artists who work with luminosity are Thomas Schaller, Mitch Albala, Skip Lawrence, Brian Keeler, Cathie Hillegas, and Jeanne Dobie. I borrowed some of their suggestions on how you too can capture more light in your paintings.
Sunlight is powerful stuff. Your paintings will become more meaningful, and personal if you can throw off the elementary concepts of copying, describing, embellishing, and adding details to labeled objects in local color. What emotional response might you create if you painted only the essence of light and shadow, the conversation between brilliance and obscurity?
Sunlight has the power to make a black roof appear white and white objects appear black. When you see only the patterns and shapes created by light and shade you free yourself from the limits of objects and your compositions are distilled down to their basic essence where they can approach the more expressive realm of poetry. Simplify, condense, and eliminate details that detract from the mood and meaning of your subject and see what emerges.
Seeing the shape of the shade is not easy. In a past essay, I introduced you to the Japanese concept of Notan. Notan is an alternating pattern of black and white where white represents all areas in light and black represents the pattern of shade. If your subject reveals itself and has a strong abstract design at the most preliminary phase it is much more likely to be a strong painting when you add in many more values and colors.
If you have access to Photoshop it is easy to experiment with Notan using the editing feature “threshold” on a photograph. I am including a few links here to articles and videos if you are able to experiment with Photoshop.
To create a Notan drawing use white for every area that is in the sunlight. Disregard all local colors and values. A black surface receiving sunlight is left white. A red, yellow, or blue surface in light is left white.
Be committed to this idea. Identify the source of the light (sun or lamp) and remember that anything perpendicular to it is in light. A clear blue sky without clouds should be interpreted as white paper. The flat planes of a lawn remain white. Look for and color in cast shadows. Any surface that has cast shadows on it is in the light (white).
Color in only that portion of the subject that is in shadow.
Your drawing should contain an interesting, rhythmically connected pattern of both light and shade which distills your excitement and emotions for the subject. Walk away and gain perspective on your drawing to see if it carries your idea from a distance.
Manipulate the light to mold reality into a more subjective and personal statement. Are there shadow areas you can link together to create a stronger shape with a variety of segment lengths, changes in direction, and detail? Are there lights you can connect to define your subject more clearly? Save your detail for the edges of your light areas. Use overlap to create depth, add in features to improve your composition if needed
Trace or copy your shade shape onto good paper or canvas. Fill this shape with paint just slightly darker than the white of the page in single light value. Use warm colors in your first layer and focus this warmth and saturation in the middle area of the painting. Do not overwork or overcomplicate the detail in the shadows. Let the shapes merge and melt together into a unifying haze. Defined details should appear only where the edges of your shadow shape meet the light. With just one layer your subject will appear to be bathed in a hazy, strong light or thick atmosphere such as fog.
Add cool colors in your second darker layer to contrast with your first layer and create more glowing light in the shadow areas of your scene. This can make the glowing light stand out and give you the ambiance you want.
As the contrast of values moves further apart the light expressed will appear stronger. Brilliant light can only be seen in contrast to a strong dark. Experiment with this. Try tinting the paper or canvas before adding a darker value shade shape. Use 4 or 5 values. Notice how these variations affect the luminosity of your subject.
Here's a step-by-step I created to demonstrate this process :
This is a drawing of the shadow shapes
Here is a Notan of the beach shack based on the drawing above.
I filled in just the shape of the shaded area with a single mid-tone value using mostly warm colors.
This version has a full range of values, but I've been able to keep the painting loose and the colors related and harmonious. Notice how the purple sets off the yellow of the house.