I teach students how to paint and draw light. I am also a lighting expert. My passion for light includes not only the commercial and retail aspects, but also the artistic one. Once drawing and painting skills have been developed to the point where students can accurately note what they see, the creation of light and shadow is studied and the faithfully delineated topic emerges into a world of space and volume.

Basically, the representation of light and shadow is achieved by using dark and light colors in the painting and tonal gradations in the drawing. For a novice learner this often requires some visual skills. First, I tell the student that it is necessary to convert what he sees into a two-dimensional view that he can translate into a two-dimensional surface such as a canvas or a page from a sketchbook.

Seeing objects two-dimensionally can be done in several ways. The simplest (and most proven) way is to build a grid in front of the topic, which could be real objects, a photo or an image. This can be done most simply by holding a pencil vertically and horizontally against the displayed objects, comparing their shapes with the vertical and horizontal lines of the pencil.

Another proven method is to literally build a grid out of glass or Plexiglas plate and place that grid in front of the objects. Now the displayed objects are intersected by many squares (depending on how big or small the squares are in the grid). Each quadrant (square) of the grid can then be painted or drawn independently and once the entire grid is completed, the composition of the objects is finished to compose an accurate picture of the objects.

Light and shadow are more easily spotted and created with this grid method. The way in which objects are illuminated can be defined on paper or canvas by observing and recreating the lights and shadows at play in each quadrant. In accomplishing this by shading and highlighting, the lighting is created and therefore the volume, the illusion of three-dimensional space is created, reborn on a two-dimensional surface.

Accuracy, as well as light and shadow, have not always been the motivation behind the representation of artistic images. Before the Renaissance, works of art in Europe depicted objects (figures, landscapes, buildings) in a flat space. There were no lights and shadows. The figures were outlined and colored in a style very much like a coloring book. These images translated well into stained glass and mosaics. Their simplicity of line and color contributed to the strength of the iconography, often of religious significance.

With the discovery of perspective, space and volume became as important to artists as the representation of light and shadow. Symbolic icons and images described by lines have given way to representations of the illuminated space. In perspective, the objects move away and advance in a totally visually believable two-dimensional space. Augmenting the elusive and advancing figures with directional light and shadow complemented the credibility, creating a world that the eye could explore as a simulated, illuminated three-dimensional environment.

Spiritual light, vehicle of the infinite, was often expressed with the use of gold leaf in medieval altarpieces. The warm, luminous and reflective surface behind the religious figures imbued the work with a rich and reassuring declaration: the glory of heaven and the power of God. A more earthly light replaced gold leaf in the Renaissance. The spiritual figures were bathed in sunlight and shrouded in shadow. The light that illuminated the humble shepherds was the same light that shone on Jesus and his followers.

It is interesting to me that the journey undertaken by a novice drawing or painting student often replicates the historical passage from the medieval use of line and colored style to the Renaissance application of space and illuminated volume. And, with more advanced students, their journey often continues to repeat the contemporary return to line and color, a preference for depicting flat, shallow spaces and solid colors.

I find it reassuring. The art world is very open, full of many styles, images, materials and skills. For today’s artist, everything is available, to be used for a creative purpose. The whole history as well as the latest technological / digital images are ready to be researched and developed.

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