Early in my artistic training, I heard a phrase about black and white objects in sunlight and shadow that left an indelible impression. It went like this, “Black in the sunlight is lighter than white in the shadow”. If you were like me, you have just stopped and read it a couple of times. It is a twister of a phrase, but understanding it is at the core of understanding sunlight and shadow.
Every student of representational painting has been repeatedly told that learning to paint well involves the ability to see accurately without preconceived notions. As humans, we spend a lifetime acquiring detailed information that we store away in the recesses of our mind. These bits and pieces of visual information get associated to things. This symbolic association allows us to identify what it is we are looking at and navigate the day. Objects are black or white. Colors are yellow or blue. When left unchallenged, these judgments can lead to bad choices in our paintings. This is where the lesson of the phrase comes into action.
In the photo here, I’ve taken a piece of black board and white board and placed them next to each other. Looking at them side-by-side, it’s easy to associate black and white to them. A can of spray fixative was placed on one board with a bright light coming in from the side to represent sunlight. The resulting cast shadow falls across the two boards giving a point of comparison. Now the phrase makes sense. The black board in the pseudo sunlight is lighter than the white board in the shadow. What can be learned from this example is that color and value exist within a relative space of illumination—a sort of family. Yellow and blue may be yellow and blue, and black and white may be black and white, but they can simultaneously exist in both the sunlight and shadow spaces of a scene. By analyzing the areas within the sunlight and shadow before tackling the individual components of the scene, we have better control over the sense of light in our paintings, ultimately making them more lifelike. Sometimes, black is lighter than white!
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