What is Light And Dark
If one is to consider how light behaves with its opposite darkness in an antithetical ballet with it, if you will, it becomes obvious that these entities are not just in opposition to each other. They each have characteristics unique to them that, when juxtaposed, distinguish how they are viewed. A good way to discover just how individually light conducts itself from darkness is to try inverting a light and dark image like when old time cameras would have negatives by which photos would be developed. (A good way to inverse a grayscale image is in photo editing software such as Photoshop. Just make sure you are in Grayscale mode and go to Image/Adjustments/Invert from the drop down menu.) When a black and white image is inverted (light becomes dark, dark becomes light) one will clearly see that things aren’t the way they should be. Light and dark are not merely opposites that can be exchanged for each other. The way light behaves doesn’t coincide with the darkness. And in the same way, darkness (in this case shadows) fall differently when substituted for light.
How Light And Dark Interact
So what are some of the ways light and dark operate. Let’s start with light, in other words white and any grays that fall below 50% black. Light has a tendency to project towards a viewer. As a three dimensional object gets closer to a viewer it gets lighter. White being the closest you can get to the picture plane. Like any rule there are exceptions, but a good approach is to reserve white and light grays for closer planes of mass in a picture. This can get interrupted by a cast shadow of a plane that intersects with the supposed light source. The light source, either natural like our good, trusty Sun (or moon, or stars etc.) or man-made such as a camp fire, a candle, florecent lights, you get the idea. When something intercepts the light rays a cast shadow breaks the rule of white being the closest to viewer.
What else does light do? Light bounces off of objects. This may cause an object not to have a hard edge in a picture. Let’s say Frosty the Snowman is illuminated in front of a dark background. You may not see a clear jump from light to dark where the snowball ends and the background begins. Its not uncommon in an image for the black around the snow to have a medium grey halo then fade to black as the space gets further away from the snow. This may create a slight blur effect with the boundary around the snowman. This is the light bouncing off the white. Hard edges are to be utilized sparingly when encompassing an object’s boundary.
Light has a tendency to affect areas in relation to there relative original lightness. The same amount of light will lighten a 50% grey much more than a 20% grey. Why is this? If we say that absolute white is at 0% then that 50% has a lot farther to travel to zero than the 20%. If all light ends up at zero, nature compensates by getting a larger impact on grays that are darker so they’ll “catch up” with the lighter ones and all will rest happily at zero.
Now we join the dark side. An invaluable lesson that many Renaissance artists obtained with shading in their paintings is the use of reflected light in shadows. If a sphere has a dark shadow bathing it’s mass, that shadow will not go to absolute black around the edge of what’s in shadow. This is because again light “bounces.” The darkest part of the shadow will be what is nearest to the highlight of the light falling on the sphere. You’d think a shadow’s components get darker the further away from the highlight. The opposite is true. Do not forget to explore reflected light in your shadows.
How This Affects Design
The “catching up” principle mentioned above is also inversely shared by darkness. A 60% grey will be darkened more by a shadow than a 80% grey. Again, because 60% has farther to go to 100% absolute black than 80%. It has more catching up to accomplish.
Cast shadows rarely have hard, linear edges as well. This is because we live on a planet with an atmosphere. The air we breathe actually diffuses the light making many edges of shadows fuzzy. Because the Moon has no atmosphere, the astronauts that visited it were mesmerized when they discovered how sharp all cast shadows were. Not down here on Earth though.
These are just a few of the differences between how light and darkness will function in your art. The rest can be found with keen observation and a clever paintbrush. Happy looking!
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