Light and shade

November 2, 2010

Dear Rodney,

Just below where we live in Crescent Beach, B. C., there's a fine public marina. 
I've been wandering down there for years. Some of the locals occasionally drop by to 
see what I'm up to. One day an unknown passerby paused to ask me if this were my day 
off work. 

More recently, a more evolved watcher asked, "What is it with you guys about boats 
propped up on land?" I told him that down here they keep moving things around, 
especially during the fall and spring, and different relationships are often seen, 
so the light and shade are a challenge. In case you might get something out of it, 
we've put a step-by-step boat example of light-and-shade in progress at the top of 
the current clickback.

While this system might not float everyone's boat, I find it best to rough in 
general shapes and patterns early on, while keeping only a partial eye on the 
eventual lay of the light. In other words, the strongest light areas go in at about 
the half-way stage of the painting. Adjusting the right tones for light and shade 
can be tricky and if you commit yourself too early, things can get pasty or, worse 
still, murky.

I look for light patterns that are of unusual shapes, big and small, with abstract 
potential. Making up this pattern is important, but it's also an opportunity to 
change a few of the local, impinging colours. Having brushed paint on our own boats 
a few times, I can tell you it's a darn sight easier to change the colour of a boat 
on canvas. The bottom coats in my subjects this day were green. Lead oxide seemed 
a better choice. Better for barnacles, too.

It's also a good idea to overdazzle your lights, even softening the edges of the 
bright parts so the light glows. Leave the details, complexities and nuances to the 
shadows. The rule here is "Light burns out detail."

Finessing a more or less correct but often subtle relationship between light and 
shade is one of the tough orders. A valuable idea is "look three times, think twice, 
paint once." The acrylic medium permits endless corrections, rethinks and 
resurrections. I figure if you can get the tonal and colour relationships within ten 
percent of reality you're doing well. It's all an illusion, but a fresh, 
confident-looking light-and-shade gives joy to your sortie.

Best regards,


PS: "Of the original phenomena, light is the most enthralling." (Leonardo da Vinci)

Esoterica: If you want to better understand the nuances of light and shade, study 
the work of Joaquin Sorolla. "Let there be no mincing of comparisons," said James 
G. Huneker, "not Turner, not Monet, painted so directly blinding shafts of sunlight 
as has this Spaniard." Down by the boats and beaches of Andalusia, working mainly 
in the Magic Hour when lights were warm and shadows were cool, Sorolla paid close 
attention to reflected light bouncing around in the shadows. How does one achieve 
this deadly eye? "Practicar." (Practice)