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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.

The luminosity of color comes from choosing colors by their effect on each other. Paint colors change their apparent brightness, transparency, and hue depending on the context in which they appear.

To create a GLOW effect you will want to contrast both value and temperature of your primary color. A warm, pale pink will glow when surrounded by dark, cool green. Purchased blacks, grays, or neutrals will not have the same effect as the complement of your selected color. If your light value is a pale yellow, your darks should have a purple or purple-gray tone.
You can further exaggerate the GLOW that is forming by generating a warm/cool relationship between your light and dark by remixing your complementary dark, altering the proportions of pigments to move the color to be warmer or cooler. Every color on the color wheel has a cooler and warmer color on either side of it. Purple has blue and red as its neighbors. If your light-valued yellow is warm, the best complementary dark to enhance it would be a cool bluish purple. For a cool light-value yellow, set it off with a warm reddish purple.

In a luminous painting, strong darks can overpower your composition. Notice how most of the example paintings limit dark shapes. In this situation, mid-value color contrast is more effective. Instead of a rich dark, strive for a mid-value mix. Keeping your values close will maintain unity and flow within your larger shapes.

Mix the complement of your light color and shift it into a warm or cool variation as needed to create the temperature contrast. Try muting the mid-value mix by adding a bit of its complement to gray the mixture. A cool bluish purple can be grayed slightly with a touch of warm yellow. This should cause your warm yellow light to GLOW even brighter.

Remembering that paint colors change in apparent brightness, transparency, or hue depending on the colors that are nearby will give you more success in establishing luminosity. Strong bright pigments cannot produce luminosity by themselves. A luminous glow has soft edges and subtle transitions. Start with pale, pure color to maintain the impression of light. Gradually blending a complementary mix in an opposite temperature will interact to create the GLOW you desire.

As you observe the world around you and the way other artists render the light, pay attention to how light affects the objects closest to it. Gradually, you can add your observations to your compositions. See if you can observe how a backlit subject has a bright rim of light around it that obscures the details inside its outline, or how the sun washes out the width and darkness of trees in a halo as it sinks behind them. Notice how light is absorbed or reflected by the texture of different objects, how detail and value diminish in bright sunlight.

In order to see the rim lighting in this image the artist has made the sky very dark. We need this contrast to perceive the brilliance of the light.

Are you ready now to dedicate your entire life to mastering the depiction of light and shadow? Probably not. But light is a worthy subject matter all on its own and there is so much more to learn. As artists we distill the objects in our scene into a poetic interplay of light and dark, expanding our ability to interpret the world in our own personal vision.
This is the paradox of light. We need light to appreciate the blue of the skies, the green of the grass, and even the colored leaves of fall… Without light there is no sight, without shadow there is no contrast, no depth.

Let's honor June, the month of light, Midsommar, the solstice, the longest day of the year by bringing more light to everything we do.

This month I used the following books and articles as resources:

If you would like my guidance and advice in adding more light and luminosity to your paintings I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you. I welcome the opportunity for conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions.

With Light and Delight


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