Throwin' Shade: The importance of the dark side.
Okay, so firstly - this isn't a blog post about passive-aggressive backhanded comments, nor is it a "Pro-Sith" article advocating for the Dark Side of the Force. If either of those things were what you were hoping for, sorry to have mislead you!
No, I just thought that was a clever use of current "hip slang" and pop-culture appropriation to introduce the REAL topic of this month's blog post. That topic being light and shadow, and how understanding these opposing natural phenomenon can give you one more tool for making your artwork "come alive" as it were.
To understand light and shadow, we first must understand how we, as humans, see the world. Okay, take a minute, look around you right now. Wherever you are, take a look around and ask yourself what you see. I'm not a mind reader, but I'm betting if you are humoring me on this little exercise, you have listed off several nearby objects that are in visual range. That's good, and yes - I would agree that, for all intents and purposes, you are in fact "seeing" those objects.
However, if you want to get really technical about it, your eyes are not seeing those objects - but rather they are seeing the light in the environment around you reflecting off of those objects. I get that that might sound silly, and it might sound like a bunch of extra words being used to express being able to detect things visually - but stick with me here, the distinction between seeing objects versus seeing the light reflected off objects is an important one. To demonstrate, here is another quick thought exercise. Observe the following pictures:
Here we see a building photographed during what looks to be the morning hours or maybe nearing sunset, and during the evening hours. Same building, same environment - but the pictures are clearly different - the sky is noticeably darker in the lower picture than in the top, as is the building, some of the windows in the bottom are brighter than in the top picture.
Why is this? Has the building itself changed color? Or the sky itself? No! Obviously not, that would be silly! You inherently know that the materials of the building do not just change color like that. So what DID change? The answer is the lighting - the light sources in the first picture are different than those in the second. The sun is high in the sky providing the majority of the light in the first picture. More light is available to be reflected off the building and other environmental elements, and thus they appear brighter in color as a result. On the other hand, in the bottom picture, the sun is no longer in the sky - so there is less light available to be reflected off of these very same environmental elements, resulting in them appearing darker. The only exception to this is now the various artificial light sources such as the street lights and traffic lights which are now the brightest light sources in the picture. The light these cast from these sources is able to increase the brightness and visibility of certain limited areas of the environment.
So in summary, what we see in our environment is a direct result of the strength, direction, and interaction among the various light sources producing light at a given time - and that changing any one or more of those attributes can change the appearance of an object even if that object itself has not changed in any way.
How then, is this important for drawing? It is important for a few reasons. I have come up with three, but I'm sure there are more. Here they are in no particular order.
1) Creates Dimension
More often than not, we are drawing in two dimensions on a piece of paper, or a canvas, or on a computer screen (I say "often" because, of this). As such pictures do not possess the changes in surface area with which light interacts to produce highlight and shadow - we as artists must create those interactions within the picture ourselves. By doing so, we add another layer or element of realism in our illustrations, we can add a sense of weight and form to the subject matter with our images - ultimately making them more interesting and appealing for the viewer. Let me illustrate (rimshot) with an example.
Below are two illustrations of a rock:
The rock on the left does not appear to be reacting with any sort of light source, all surface area appears to be equally visible - the only defining feature is the black outline of the rock. You can still tell it's a rock (I hope, otherwise I need to start practicing drawing rocks), but you know immediately it is a very stylized cartoon version of a rock.
The rock on the right appears to be interacting with a light source, coming from the upper right hand side of the illustration. The parts of the rock directly in the path of this light are lit up and shown as brighter than those parts of the rock that are being blocked from the direct light source. In this case the lower left part of the rock is predominantly shadowed being opposite the source of the light.
Examining these two images, the rock on the right appears more three-dimensional and to have mass and weight - even though it is existing on a two dimensional surface (your computer or tablet screen) right now. I'll admit, that shadowy rock still looks pretty cartoon-like, but just adding that one extra element of realism, that one extra thing our brain knows happens as light hits objects around us, can add so much more to your illustration.
2) Creating Contrast
Contrast is basically changes in environmental stimuli that are detectable by your five senses. So really it can be anything, the differences in smells between two different flowers, or perhaps the difference between feeling a cool breeze and a warm up-draft. However, for our purposes now, I'm talking about visual contrast, differences in color or lightness and darkness.
So why is contrast important? Well, by definition - if there are no differences, everything must be the same. There's a really great quote from one of my favorite paranormal/urban fantasy shows growing up. Angel (which was a spinoff of the popular Buffy: The Vampire Slayer tv series) that beautifully illustrates this point:
"now I can hold a note for a long time, actually I can hold a note forever. But eventually that's just noise. It's the change we're listening for. The note coming after and the one after that, that's what makes it music."
And I couldn't agree more. Without any source of contrast, your really can't create any sensory interest! I'll illustrate with another example. Below are two pictures depicting the same subject, that being A-polar bear at the north pole during a snow storm.
The picture on the left, contains absolutely no contrast - there is nothing for the viewer to use to visually separate the snow from the polar bear from the north pole environment. The image is absolutely what was described previously, but is about as interesting as looking at a blank piece of paper.
The image on the right does contain contrast. In this image, contrast is created by the light source interacting with the subjects within the picture creating areas of brightness where light is striking and reflecting off a surface freely and areas of shadow where light is being prevented from reaching. So in this version of the picture, the light source is presumably the sun and despite the snowstorm, is still able to cast light on to the top-most surfaces of the polar bear and the ground. The areas underneath the polar bear, specifically underneath the bear's belly and legs and the ground directly below the bear are darker as light cannot shine through the bear to reach those areas. All together, your brain can "read" the whole picture and immediately conclude that there is a bear there among the storm.
Granted, you can create even more contrast by using different colors (or even different shades of the same color) or adding an outline around your subject matter - and that too could help to increase the "readability" of the image. However, this example was to show that simply using highlights and shadows can achieve all the necessary contrast on its own, and how valuable a tool understanding this concept is for taking your art to the next level!
3) Creates Drama
No, I don't mean that your pictures will beg the captain to stop the flight just before takeoff so it can de-board the plane and chase after the love of its life, nor will your picture recite a monologue about how it WILL overcome the odds.
No, what I mean is that understanding of light and shadow can help create visual interest, emphasize certain parts of an illustration drawing the viewer's gaze, and ultimately make the final piece more engaging for the viewer.
Here are a couple of pieces I found on Deviantart.com which is a great source for finding all kinds of art from artists all over the world, these two were done by Ryky, please check out his profile if you get a few moments it has some very beautiful work. As you can see, he uses a major light source to highlight or create a focal point in the images - drawing your eyes to something special about each, be it the youths and the flying whale-like creatures in the first image, or the majestic spires in the second image.
Also it bears mentioning that the main light source, being in the background of both of these images creates backlighting on the foreground subjects, obscuring any sort of fine details or defining features - you are left with just general forms cast in shadow. So you, as a viewer are left with a sense of mystery - you are asking who are those kids? Are they human, or perhaps some fantastical creatures like those whale-like beings? What are the spires, who built them, or are they perhaps naturally occurring? Maybe you linger on the image longer as you ponder these questions, or maybe you project your own interpretation or narrative onto the image! Allowing the viewer to fill in some of the details on their own, or allowing them room to ask questions about what is in front of them is an excellent way to create engaging artwork - and understanding the relationship between light and shadow is an excellent tool in allowing us as artists to do just that!