Rudolf Stussi: Shades of Meaning


Hotel Entrance, Venice (watercolor, 16×20)

It’s a simple fact that to create the perception of light, you must also create the perception of shadow. It’s this balance between light and shadow that creates the mood of a picture. In my work I deliberately manipulate shadow to underscore the effect I want. A picture is a fabrication anyway, so I have a license to do what I like. The crucial difference to me is that I want it to be believable, but never realistic.

Technically, there are two kinds of shadows—basic shadows and angle shadows. Basic shadows are simply those areas out of the light. They’re generally cool in color and emphasize drama. Angle shadows are those areas still in the light but at an oblique angle to it. They create a less reflective, darker surface, but the shadow remains warm overall and provides subtlety.


Cupola, Kurfuerstendamm (Berlin) (watercolor, 18×24)

Beyond identifying basic and angle shadows, it’s important to note the levels of shadow I a scene. To this end, shadows can be roughly divided into two more categories: deep and secondary. The deep shadows can be used either to isolate a lighter area, bring it into focus or to create a contrast in the focal area surrounded by secondary shadows. Secondary shadows constitute the middle ground. They allow the shadow area to breathe. They also reflect colors from the lighted area, creating a resonance that helps unify the whole picture.

Once the color values are correct, there are several important things that I usually consider when choosing the color for a given shadow. First, it’s important not to confuse the inherent color temperatures of these two types of shadows. Second, I try to make sure my choice of shadow colors isn’t too arbitrary, and I try to keep them consistent. The shadow—and the painting—will fall apart if I have a blue shadow here, a purple shadow there, and a green shadow in between.


Fall at the Beach (Toronto) (watercolor, 19×26)

As I create scenes, I try to figure out and refine the pattern of light, secondary shadow and deep shadow. Refining shadows means considering them as abstract shapes, creating a pattern that’s visually interesting in its own right. You can stretch, sharpen, connect, deepen and even invent shadows to suit virtually any mood you want to create.

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