- Lesson Details
In this video lesson world-renowned painter Steve Huston will walk you through the essential laws of light for artists. Steve will teach you how to use direct as well as indirect light to model your forms and create the sense of a light source.
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laws of light for artists.
Steve will teach you how to use direct as well as indirect light to model your forms
and create the sense of a light source.
You will also learn how to use shadows and reflected light to create
a sense of realism and luminosity.
As we begin here, what we need is a form.
There is our form or the beginning of one, an environment to place that form within and
a light source to light that form.
Then we’re going to want to know what is light as we look at that form.
Any particular place on the form, what is light and what is shadow?
If we can map that out then we have pretty decent control of this.
With a little bit of rendering technique that we’ll talk about—we’re going to move
fairly quickly through this and be able to get something that has
a pretty good sense of illusion.
As we’ve drawn before, we’ve established the concept of form, of a particular character
of shape in a particular position in space, a perspective, and a particular proportion.
That’s what the form gives us.
A form in position, structure.
Now we’re going to take it and do it not with line, which is a concept.
It’s the idea that’s established but not the illusion.
You don’t get a gut feel of that.
You just understand that as a convention.
Now we’re going to work with outline here.
Although we’re starting with it here.
We’re going to end up with outline.
We’re going to try to get the gut reaction of the form.
That’s going to be with tone and values.
The strategy we’re going to use is a two-value system.
We’re only going to break this into two values.
What we want to know is what is light and what is shadow.
We’re going to give the light a light value, and we’re going to give the shadow a dark
Just two values.
There are a million values we can put down there.
There is going to be all sorts of rendered stuff on top of that that we could do.
We’re not going to do any of that to begin with.
We’re going to design it as a two-value system.
Then when we add our rendering on it, it’ll end up being two-value ranges.
That’s the way we’re going to design and work with tone, with color.
That’s how we’ll work in paint.
That gives us a lot more control over the situation rather than copying every little
incremental move of light to dark and getting confused with the convolutions of the form
and the variations of tone.
We’re going to look at the light source and we’re going to establish
that two-value system.
So here we go.
The light hits the form.
As the form faces more directly toward the light source it gets lighter.
As it turns away from the light source it gets darker.
At some point along that trajectory we’re going to find that it’s no longer light.
That moment, as we roll down the hill, roll over the form and find the shadow, that shadow
then becomes an edge that moves around the form.
What we’ll find typically, and as good designers what we’ll look for is if we’re drawing
a round form, we want to find a round shadow shape.
We want to say round as often as we can so the design shapes that we will chose will
best be chosen as round shapes.
If it was a squarish form we would look for squarish shapes.
In this case we want to get round shapes.
Just like if we were doing a funny movie, we want to establish a lot of funny scenes.
We want to reinforce the idea as quickly and as often as possible.
That’s what we’re doing here.
For example, we could have a ball that is lit with shadow.
That would be a poor choice because we’re using a straight line
to talk about a round object.
We could render this very carefully and give it the illusion of roundness, but we won’t
have set it as deeply and as powerfully as if we move that line off the center, off the
equator and allowed it to move around the arching form.
So there is our shape.
Our process then is to draw the shape of the form and the shape of the shadow on the form,
and then establish a shadow.
It doesn’t have to be black and white.
It just has to be significantly darker.
And what significantly means is when you squint at it you see a distinct difference.
If it’s very, very subtle and you squint at it and they look about the same you’re
not going to get that impact.
The high Renaissance Baroque artists called it the chiaroscuro, light and shadow impact,
the Rembrandts and the van Dycks, all those guys.
You get that powerful Caravaggio, the powerful impact of glowing light in deep, dark shadow.
You feel the weight and volume and heft of the forms.
That’s what we’re after here.
Let me just give this a little bit of color so I have some more ranges to work with and
you can see it more strongly on camera as we develop.
So let’s come over and then to our categories and write down what we’ve done so far.
What we did is we found the beginning of the shadow.
We found the beginning of the shadow.
We can call that the form shadow or core shadow edge.
Or just call it the beginning of the shadow.
Really the only important thing for us is that the beginning of the shadow is the corner,
and it’s the most important corner of the form.
You’re thinking, wait a second, this is a round ball.
There is no corner.
What I want to do when I’m rendering is I want to think in what I call box logic.
I want to box everything out.
This turns this way.
That turns that way.
This is a lighter tone.
This is a darker tone.
It establishes the solid, shape delineations right off the bat.
It’s going to be very easy to soften those up.
We’re going to round this off really easily.
Now rendering just says this, our design, our linear design that we do says round, but
the rendering we’ve done says square.
That’s exactly as it should be to begin with.
Now we found the beginning of the shadow and we put a shadow value in there, but we really
didn’t explore the end of the shadow.
The end of the shadow we call the cast shadow, the cast shadow edge.
Form shadow edge or core shadow edge, cast shadow edge.
Cast shadow edge is the end of the form, or if the form is big enough it’s going to
block the form underneath it from receiving light.
And so we will get what is more familiarly called the cast shadow edge.
We’re familiar generally with this cast shadow edge.
I want you to think of all the ended shadow as the cast shadow edge
just because it’s easier.
Rather than calling it something different, we’re going to call it something that is
strictly a self-serving definition.
Cast shadow edge is the end of the shadow.
Notice that the cast shadow edge isn’t necessarily a corner.
Tabletop goes right through that edge, drops down.
Let’s go ahead—I dropped it again, there we go—go ahead and give this a shadow.
Let’s say the front of the tabletop is also dropping in shadow.
There we go.
So a cast shadow edge isn’t necessarily a corner and oftentimes is not a corner.
If it were a stairstep here or staircase, and each step went down in light and shadow,
then the beginning of the shadow would be a corner, and the end of the shadow would
be a corner.
The beginning of the shadow is a corner.
The end of the shadow is a corner.
In this case, not a corner and in this case not a corner.
It can be all sorts of things but may be a corner, maybe not.
We’ll explore that in the next lecture actually.
We just need to end it.
We need to end the shape and the cast shadow edge will be on the form or casting off the
form just depending on the situation.
But the form shadow, the core shadow edge is the beginning of the shadow.
It is a corner.
Now we’ve established all the shadow.
If we had to stop here that would be a fine place to stop.
If we wanted to be a little more sophisticated, all I would do is I would push the border
with a thick soft line, and that would give the illusion of more rendering than I really did.
Notice how I blended that smudged line into the surrounded tones and made it look a little
prettier and a little more rendered.
I moved along the border of the tone where one tone met another tone.
In this case shadow met light, and I zigzagged
back and forth and drew it back and/or drew it forward.
The tighter the zigzag and the more aggressively I push it, the more rendered it becomes.
The better gradation it becomes.
Notice I can give the illusion of a ball here with just a little bit of work.
That’s the basis of all my rendering techniques, whether I’m working in pastels or oil paint
or gouache watercolor, that zigzag technique works beautifully to integrate one tone or
one color into the next.
You can work very, very fast and you can work very, very large that way.
You can work here or you can work in a really tight, minute little area.
Zigzag technique is a great rendering technique and it’s a basic technique for almost all
blending, one version of it or another.
Okay, so if we had to stop that would be great.
Usually at a sketch class when we’re doing a quick sketch like some of the earlier lectures
on the figure that’s about all we do.
We wouldn’t even do this blending.
We’d just lay in that shadow shape.
We’d bump the border a little bit just to emphasize the beginning of the shadow to make
sure that wasn’t just a smudged half-tone but a real shadow.
Let’s go on here.
We’ve got the beginning of the shadow.
We’ve got the end of the shadow.
We emphasize the beginning of the shadow to emphasize that corner and to give a little
bit of nice technique.
The light, let’s bring it down here because I wrote over it.
The light now, we haven’t talked at all about the light side.
The light side either is highlights or it’s half-tones.
It’s one or the other.
If it’s not the highlight, it’s up in here.
The highlight will be up in the area that faces most directly towards the light source.
Then it’s half-tone.
Half-tone can be, half-tone is the tone between the highlight and the shadow.
And so it can be almost as light as the highlight, and you may well have a situation where there
is no highlight at all.
It can be almost as dark as the shadow.
Half-tone is usually characterized by gradation.
Notice when we rendered here with our zigzag technique we’ve got a little bit of gradation
so we started to get a little bit of half-tone.
Half-tone can be almost as dark as the shadow.
That’s what we did here.
Almost as light as the highlight.
We quickly went to that.
There actually is no highlight at this point or anywhere in between.
It’s the gradation.
If the beginning of the shadow is the corner, let’s re-emphasize that corner.
If it’s the corner, and by the time we’re done with this ball rendering, it will be
a rounded corner, but it will still be a corner just like the stairstep is.
Then half-tone is the speed.
Let me rephrase that.
Half-tone is best used as the speed that we turn that corner.
Notice my zigzag techniques.
I am going into that dark edge and dragging it out into the lights.
Now I’ve got a moderate amount of half-tone.
I’m starting to get the illusion of a ball.
Notice how I haven’t done anything in the shadows here.
This is all dropping off and feeling flat.
But now this is starting to round a little bit.
It’s not fully round but round enough to get the idea.
We could stop there and do just fine.
We can draw the simple shape.
We can draw the shape of the shadow on that shape of the form.
We can establish a relatively dark value.
We’ll know it’s relatively dark and dark enough by squinting at it.
Make sure that it groups.
Then by a zigzag will come to the border between those two tones.
In this case, the beginning of the shadow, the core or form shadow edge, and we’ll
zigzag back and forth with our finger, our stump, or brush, whatever tool we’re using
to manipulate a medium.
Drag one tone back into the other to create a lovely or painterly or finely rendered gradation.
Within a couple of minutes, I can have a relatively sophisticated rendering.
We may want to take it farther.
Now, I said the value between the light side and the shadow side has to be relatively light
The light side has to be relatively lighter.
The shadow side has to be relatively darker.
Notice how I can glaze over the top of this environment and make it quite a bit subtler.
It’s still going to read.
Squint at that right now, I insist.
You can still see that ball but it feels like it’s in a bit of a fog.
It’s a subtle rendering now.
Whereas before it was a slightly more contrasting rendering.
As long as you squint and all the lights group away from all the darks, you’re in pretty
Now, if I want to make this more sophisticated, I’m going to keep blending in zigzag so
I get an absolutely perfect gradation.
I’m not going to do an absolutely perfect gradation on this, but I’ll get a pretty
close proximity to that.
That’s a pretty good.
Let’s go a little bit farther.
I can do better than that.
I’m going to scrub more aggressively.
If I need it to be really beautifully perfect in my rendering I take a kneaded eraser, dab
back the little darks and blotches.
Come in with a lighter pencil and soften up those and finish.
Now that’s a pretty darn good gradation.
I’m impressed with myself.
Problem is now as I squint, it gets very hard to figure out exactly where that border is
between light and shadow.
The border is getting awful soft.
If I kept going and kept going I would actually lose the border between the light and the
The danger is in these things is we over render.
We put so many value gradations in the light and/or in the shadow, and we lose the major
corner, the major place where we get that chiaroscuro, that light and shadow accent
against each other, and that corner that changes and creates form.
It has a much more powerful sense of form than this does.
Even though this is more beautifully rendered let’s say.
I don’t want to over-render it.
As I blend away, render away, squint at it.
If it all starts to blur together as it is now come back an reemphasize that corner.
Let’s just take this all down here.
Push that whole shadow darker again, closer to what we had in the beginning and correct.
Now I’ve lost a little bit of the airy value in the shadows but that is a much better rendering
in the light.
Now if I want to get further impact I would allow the environment to help frame the background
to help frame the foreground.
I’ll say that behind the tabletop it’s also in shadow.
Look at what has happened now when I do that.
Let’s pull my edge back here a little bit.
When I do that I lose or all but lose part of my ball.
We’ve lost some of the ball into that background.
Some of that beautiful roundness has been lost into the environment.
What a shame to lose that.
Notice we lost a lot of the ball here into the tabletop.
What a shame to lose that.
But by losing that, what is leftover becomes more important.
We’re going to talk about that when we get into tones a little farther, especially when
we get into painting.
One of the great strengths, in some ways the only strength, the only real tool you have
is your choices, and specifically what you leave out because nature puts in everything.
You’re not going to be able to put in everything.
Even if you’re a hyperrealist, you’re not going to get every hair on the forearm.
You’re not going to get every freckle on the face.
You’re not going to get every blade of grass.
You’re going to leave out stuff.
And so that means as an artist we are forced to edit.
Nature has it’s own way of editing, but as we look carefully at nature it puts in
We can’t for all sorts of reasons.
So, since we know we have to leave things out let’s make sure that becomes a strength
rather than a weakness.
What we leave out then can be the signature and actually will be in large measure the
signature of our style.
You look at Sargent or Rembrandt or any of the Brown School painters where you get the
glowing light, the nice rich yellow lights and the light, everything drops to brown.
Caravaggios, the van Dycks, the Rubens.
All that bunch, da Vinci.
They are called the Brown School painters because everything fades to brown in the shadows.
It drops off to brown.
If you look at those artists you’ll find there is very little information in the shadows.
You might have an ear in the Rembrandt.
It’s just actually a line separating the ear in shadow from the background in shadow.
There is almost no separation.
Oftentimes there is no separation.
They’ll just lose it.
It gets lost.
In Caravaggio everything fades to black almost.
There is no separation in the shadows.
You don’t see foreground from background, clothing from flesh.
None of those things separate really in any real way.
That is actually a strong suit.
That’s a mature choice to be willing to leave something out so what’s leftover becomes
This is going to look more real if I make this less interesting.
The more interesting the more realistic the more detail I put in the shadows, the more
it actually steals attention from the lights.
Movie starts know that.
They don’t want the bartender getting the best lines.
They want to say the best lines.
We need a movie star or two in our compositions.
What’s going to be the first and most important character?
What’s going to be the second most important character.
And so value, one of the great things about value is it gives us a wonderful change to
design, what are we going to separate out and what are we going to group together.
What we separate out the more strikingly we separate it, the more tension it garners.
The subtler the separation, the less attention.
Now this side is more interesting than that side.
This has a stronger contrast.
This has a lesser contrast.
The eye goes to the area of greatest contrast.
We want to be able to control that as composers, as artists creating a cohesive hole and not
a bunch of disjointed parts.
So the beginning of the shadow is the corner of the form, the gradation of the half-tone
is how quickly or slowly we turn that corner.
When you do a lot of gradation it’s a real slow stroll
down that lazy hill.
When we have little or no gradation it’s a fall off the cliff.
Depending on how we want to attract the viewer’s attention or the character of the form, is
it round or a square, we’ll add more or less gradation.
And so half-tone is a place where we can show the roundness of our object.
We start out with box logic.
This is light.
This is shadow.
A box just like that stairstep.
Then if we choose to we’ll add a little bit or a ton of half-tone gradation to create
a slow rounded trip over that form.
The highlight then will sit somewhere up near where the form faces most directly toward
Somewhere up near is fairly vague.
It could be anywhere in here.
Highlight can move around.
Let’s play a game here.
Let me make sure we’re on the page for you.
Let’s play some pool.
Here is my pool cue.
Here is a ball.
Here is a pocket.
Here is the other bank.
How am I going to get that ball in that pocket?
There is only one way to do it.
That’s to bank the shot.
If I hit the ball at the right angle, the correct angle, it’ll bounce right in.
If this angle is basically equal to that, it’ll go right in the pocket and I’ll
win that $5.
We’re going to think of the pool stick as the light source.
And the ball is going to be the light that is going to come from that source.
It’s going to going to shoot out of that light source.
It’s going to bounce off that pool stick.
It’s going to strike our form.
Then it’s going to ricochet off that form and go to our eye.
We will see that form.
Light is reflective.
That is going to be of great value when we get into color theory.
Light is reflected.
It strikes the form, bounces off the form, and comes back to me.
If you look at this ring you’ll see it has a highlight.
As I move my finger around with the ring on it, the highlight or highlights will move.
If I hold it still—it won’t work on camera—but if I held it still—you can look at your
own shiny object in your room, and you move three or four feet one way or the other you
will see that highlight move as you move.
Move across the room and you’ll see it shift.
The highlight might be here or here or here.
If I needed to put that ball over here, I’d bounce it farther off the bank.
It would move over here.
This area is where the light hits most directly, and the light comes in little packets and
bounces off like water splatters off a surface.
Depending on where you’re at, you’re going to catch that splatter, that bounce, and you’ll
see that point as a highlight.
The edge of the shadow won’t move as we walk around the form, of course, that we’ll
get a different angle, and so in that sense it moves.
It’s not going to migrate on the form.
It’s going to stay fixed to form because it is either facing the light and catching
some bit of light or it’s turning away from the light and catching none of that light,
or as we call it, direct light.
But the highlight can migrate around.
When we get into careful renderings in the next few lectures of the structure and the
gesture that’s going to become of great value.
Since we can move it we’re going to move it to a place, say up against a dark edge
to create greater contrast, greater interest or greater form maybe, greater depth of field.
We could put that there, but it could be in several places.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a dot highlight, it could be just a much lighter half-tone.
In fact, in the high Renaissance, they didn’t use highlights at first except for jewelry.
Depending on what you read and who you talk to, da Vinci or Georgionne who actually invented
in a way the use of highlight on flesh.
But we think of the Sargents and the Rembrants and there is always the highlight on the nose
and the glint in the eye.
That stuff wasn’t done in the earlier days.
We’re kind of highlight crazy because we think it gives a lot of form.
It gives some form.
It doesn’t give most of the form.
Most of the form is created here, where the light separates from the shadow, from that
first corner that you designed in the very beginning of your sketch.
Not all that careful gradation.
That refines the idea but it doesn’t establish the idea.
That half-tone is going to round the form.
It’s going to refine how we move from light to shadow.
It’s not going to create the form.
It’s the shadow against the light that creates the form.
Notice as we squint here we can still separate all the shadow from all the light.
Notice also we haven’t rendered in the shadows yet.
We’ve established the shadows but they’ve been graphic.
We’ve lost them into the background.
We’ve lost the form of the ball into the form of the tabletop.
We haven’t done any rendering in here.
If it were a sketch or if I were a Brown School painter, indoor painter like our favorites
that I’ve mentioned, Merritt-Chase and Duveneck and some of the tonalists, a ton of those,
we just do a little bit of drawing in the shadows and we call that good.
Let’s take it farther.
Let’s be more rendered.
That’s going to help us explain the laws of light a little further.
The laws of light are going to affect the shadows, just not directly.
This is called the direct light source.
There is also an indirect light source.
Nature, in effect, as far as we artists are concerned, works with two light sources, the
direct light source, the spotlight or the sun, the indirect light source or reflected
light source, the bouncing light.
The light strikes the ball and bounces to our eye and that’s how we see its roundness.
This bounces a little light to our eye.
This bounces almost no light to our eye.
And so we see that gradation and that effect.
As it strikes the ball, it’s also going to strike the tabletop.
As these things bounce light to us, they are going to bounce light to everything around them.
They are not eye specific.
Our eye just happens to be in the way of the some of that packet of photons coming out.
As the light strikes the tabletop, it’ll bounce off in every direction.
It’s just like throwing a basketball down.
If you throw it down it’ll bounce up.
If you throw it that way it will bounce at an obtuse angle that way.
What happens is as this strikes it bounces back up.
As it bounces up, it’s going to throw light into the situation.
Let me, well, I will save that actually for a little bit later when we have a better lighting
situation to show you.
But it’s going to bounce.
So as it bounces up, it’s going to bounce light back at the ball.
That bouncing light is not going to affect the light side of the ball for two reasons.
This direct light is way more powerful than the reflected bouncing light, but also this
form is facing up and the bounce going up isn’t going to run into it.
As the form turns down, as it turns down and tucks under in its roundness then yes, this
light bouncing up will bounce up and throw reflected light or bouncing light or indirect
light onto our ball.
Let’s get rid of this so we can maintain our illusion here of our careful rendering
and our sense of form and structure and all that good stuff.
Here is what is going to happen.
As that ball turns down toward that bouncing light,
it’s going to catch the most bouncing light.
As is slowly rolls back up towards the light source, it’s going to catch less and less
and less and less and less and less reflected light.
So you will get a half-tone gradation of the form turning away from the direct light source
and so getting darker and darker and darker until it becomes shadow.
In the shadows you’ll also get the reflected light gradating
and going darker and darker and darker.
You’ll get a gradation there as well.
Squint at that.
Doesn’t that look beautiful?
Wait a second here.
When I squint at it the shadow side now is more or less the same value as the light side.
My two-value system and my two-value ranges are really just one value range from light
to middle and from light to middle.
One of the big dangers of rendering the shadow and getting all excited about reflected light
is you start rendering and adding light into the shadow.
Well, shadow is a dark idea just like villain is an evil idea.
You don’t want to show how back a villain is by having him do good things.
You want to show the dark things he does.
Same thing with the shadow.
So let’s go back.
That was a mess.
Didn’t work at all.
I’ll try and do better for you.
Let’s think this through a little bit.
Now, do I really, really want to explain shadow, the dark value, the dark idea by adding light
tones into it?
Notice my process.
Process is important.
You want a process that reinforces your ideas, process that makes the gestures more gestural
and makes the structure more structural.
It makes the shadows more shadowy and the lights more light-like and the depth more
deep and the perspective more dynamic or whatever.
We want to reinforce it.
What I would much rather do then is come up with a process that’s logical, that I don’t
have to double-check and worry about, but that’s going to be self-serving.
It’s going to move me as I use my process more and more, I should get a better and better
result without having to second guess.
What I’m going to do then is when I initially start this, I’m going to pick a middle value
for the shadows as I did.
I could have gone here for the shadows.
I didn’t do that.
I went to a middle value.
Now look what happens.
Now I want to show that beautiful reflected light.
You always have two ways to go when you’re trying to get a particular choice developed.
If you want something to look darker, or if you want to make something look lighter, in
this case the reflected light, you can render it lighter.
Well, we’ve tried that and we screwed it up.
We could render less, but still we’re adding light to a dark idea.
If I want something to look lighter, I can render it lighter, or I can put what’s next
to it, make what’s next to it darker.
If I want to show that ball catching a lot or a little reflected light, I’ll make the
value next to it a lot or a little darker, in this case the tabletop.
Now look what happened.
As soon as I make the tabletop darker look how light that reflected light looks.
Now I still want my gradation so I’m going to come back to my core form shadow,
I’m going to push that darker also, and then I’m going to zigzag.
In this case I’m using the chalk rather than my finger.
Now I want to make it a more careful rendering so I’m going to go to my finger and I’m
going to create a gradation.
Then I’m going to reintegrate that beginning shadow back into the half-tone.
I’m going to zigzag it back in so it makes a soft transition.
I’m going to make sure, I’m going to keep squinting at it to make sure that I haven’t
done it so much that I lose the corner.
I still want that soft corner.
Look what happens when I do that bit of rendering.
I end up with a core of darkness for the form or core shadow edge.
It’s the form shadow edge because it’s where the edge, the form turns
into the shadow at that edge.
It’s the core shadow edge because you get a core of darkness
where the shadow is darkest here.
This is the beginning where absolutely no direct light hits the form.
It’s also rolling up.
It’s where the least amount of reflected light generally, in most situations,
affects the form.
It catches very little reflected light and no direct light.
It’s going to be oftentimes the darkest or one of the darkest tones on the form.
And so we end up oftentimes with this core of darkness and so it’s called a core shadow
Now, when I squint at that, this still separates pretty strongly.
This is a pretty soft gradation.
This still is starting to look like my middle to dark half-tones.
You can get away with it if you have a nice dark core.
If you want something to look really reflective or metallic.
The woman is laying on a white tablecloth or it’s a reflective ball and you want to
get that kind of chrome or something like that.
Generally, you want it to be a little subtler.
I want the attention as a Brown School painter, as a Rembrandt type, a Duveneck type, a Zorn,
a Kroyer, Sarolla, indoor Sarolla.
I want the attention usually to be in the shadows—I mean, I’m sorry, in the light side.
I’m going to keep that subtler.
Then I’ll come back.
I’ll just work back and forth.
Especially if you’re working in an opaque medium like oil paint, you can render it up,
let it dry and sit for a few days.
Go that’s just too strong reflected light.
Knock it down, let it sit for a couple of days.
Look at it again.
Not quite enough.
Just go back and forth until you get the perfect solution.
Notice now the illusion we have.
Notice we still have two values.
It’s either dark or it’s light.
Then we have a range of values, a subtle range here, a fuller range here, almost as dark
as the shadows and almost as light as the light source here.
Still it reads as a two-value system.
We can go super dark, but the danger of going super black is it starts to look graphic,
like a logo rather than realistic as a form.
In realism, if this is black and this is white, usually we’re in here.
We’re not using that full range of black.
We’re coming up in here.
There is going to be a reason for that also when we get into color.
If we go black we can’t, there is no color in black.
We can’t see it.
We want to get up in value a little bit so we can see more color.
Generally, as painters, as realist painters, we don’t use our full range of values or
very rarely do we do them in specific moments in the painting or specific subjects.
Maybe a guy in a black tuxedo, that kind of thing, a white shirt.
Usually we want to back off.
Look at how much bang we get in terms of form backing way off the full spectrum.
We didn’t get pure white, and we didn’t get near to black.
We’re much more in the midrange.
We’re much more here halfway and up.
Notice that as I render I can always pop it.
Come back, I won’t do it.
Come back on that core and push it darker and darker and darker.
Get it really deep and dark like a Caravaggio.
He would get almost black in those shadows.
Really, really deep van Dyck brown.
Generally, it’s better to start in the midtones.
What I’ll do is in my paintings and my drawings, I’ll lay in the shadows as a midrange value.
Then my rendering on that will go darker and darker, and I’ll usually still stay in the
mid ranges, maybe a little darker than this.
Maybe even lighter than this.
But in the midranges.
That still gives me plenty of bang in here.
Of course, I can decide that there is too much gradation going on.
The half-tones are getting too dark, and I can come back and I can dust these back.
You can do it in a painterly manner or you can do it in a rendered manner.
It doesn’t matter.
That’s a matter of taste.
A lot of matters and manners in that statement.
I can wash out those lights a little bit more if I wanted to, and we can decide if that’s
better or worse, but anywhere in this range.
Squint, light against shadow.
We’ve got our-Lights have highlights and half-tone.
Half-tone controls the gradations.
Half-tone is gradation.
It controls the roundess of the form.
It does some other things but for now we’re just stopping with that.
The shadow, we need to find the beginning and the end of the shadow, the form or core
shadow edge and the cast shadow edge.
The end of the shadow might be on the form, or it might be off the form casting onto the
The beginning of the shadow is the corner.
The half-tone controls the roundness of that corner.
Little or no half-tone.
It’ll be a very square corner.
A lot of half-tone.
It’ll be a much more rounded corner.
That’s about it.
That’s all we really need to do.
Work with the two-value system.
When you start to render it’s two-value ranges.
Always use that squint test so that all your shadows group dark and all your lights group
light and the two don’t compete.
That’s the safest way to go.
As long as we get the shape of the form, the shape of the shadow on the form and establish
a decent middle value for the shadow, we’ve got most of what we need.
If we come back and bump a little core of darkness we will actually suggest a rendered
reflected light when we haven’t done any work at all, hardly.
So in a quick sketch, they draw the form, draw the shape of the form.
You draw a value in the shadow.
You keep that border a little darker.
That starts to suggest the reflected light here.
It gives a core shadow.
We don’t have a true gradation, but your audience won’t really notice that.
If we want to add a little bit of half-tone, we use our zigzag technique, and it actually
moves along quite quickly.
We can get a pretty nicely sketched little rendering that says roundness very, very quick
in just moments.
That’s the sketch version of the same thing.
Shape of the form.
Shape of the shadow on the form.
Establish a dark value for the form.
Soften the edge if you want to soften the form.
And we’re done.
Let me give you basic formula that laws of light are based on in terms of why we need
them as an artist.
The obvious reason is that nature is working with light sources.
We live in light sources.
Our experience is light sources with light and shadow.
And so we copy those experiences and we get realism.
There is a little bit more to that and there is a way of simplifying it, and so it becomes
a much more useful tool for us.
We’re going to use several formulas.
I’m going to use several formulas in my thinking of art.
I do that.
I do do.
We’re going to use that in my teaching, of course.
I’m going to explain one of them right now.
Most of those formulas will go through color theory.
The reason I’m using them there is because we’re dealing with science.
Science deals with formulas.
E equals mc squared, that sort of stuff.
We use physics formulas in school, and it’s the way as I said earlier, the laws of light
They are physical laws that we can prove in a laboratory, and there are laws that we need
to know as artists.
We’ve got to as artists know how the world works, how it works physically, mechanically,
and we have to know how our mind plays with that, plays tricks with it, understands it,
Both of those things, the psychology of how we perceive the world, our experience of the
world, and then the world itself as best we can understand it.
Those things together are going to be the foundation and knowledge that we use as artists
to then play our artistic creative games and go off into all sorts of fancies and possibilities.
Here is the first formula an artist needs to know in creating a sense of realism or
mucking up the realism and taking it in a brand-new direction.
If you want to be a wild, modern artist and take these things in brand-new directions,
it behooves you also to know the way nature works and the way your audience is going to
perceive nature, and then you can play games with them.
You can take it in an unexpected direction, and that surprise can be worth a lot.
So here it is.
The simple value, you can see it right behind me here, different value, different plane.
Every time we see a different value or eye sees this.
If I look at flesh and I see that this set of fingers is lighter than this set of fingers
over here, we will see that value change as a form change, a plane that faces more directly.
In this case it’s getting lighter.
The plane that faces to the side is getting darker because of whatever lighting situation.
Different value, different plane.
If we do it this way, if I make the value here the same value as here, that same value
equals same plane.
That’s the flip side of that formula.
Same value equals same plane.
Different value equals different plane.
In other words, if I make the front of the cheek light and the side of the cheek dark,
you as the audience, even though it’s on flat canvas or flat paper, will read this.
You’ll do most of the work for me.
That’s one of the key psychological points as an artist.
The audience is there to help.
In fact, art is great for a lot of reasons.
One of them is you’ve got a group of people that desperately want you to succeed.
They want that move to be the best movie they’ve ever seen when they go in the theater.
They want that novel to be the greatest novel they’ve ever read when they pick it up.
They want the song to be the most fantastic song.
They want your painting or drawing to be the greatest work of art they’ve ever seen.
When they go to your one-man show or one-woman show at the gallery
they want to be blown away.
They are rooting for you.
That doesn’t happen that often in life, but it does for artists.
They desperately want you to succeed.
They want you to teach them something.
In fact, they want you to show them how the world works.
They want you to explain this grand mystery that they found themselves stuck within.
And so if you give them a little bit of room they’ll do a lot of the work for you.
We’re going to talk about that concept quite a bit as we go through our art training here,
how the audience does a lot, in fact, does most of the work for us.
Here we go again.
Same value, same plane.
Different value, different plane.
If I smudge this part of the paper darker, keep this part of the paper light, define
it in a decently well-defined shape, a region of shape, they will see that as form.
They’ll turn that for you.
They’ll be fooled.
They’ll be convinced.
They’ll be thrilled by this.
The flip side of that is if I make the front of the cheek the same value as the side of
the cheek, it’s going to go flat.
They’re not going to get that thrill of form.
They’re not going to get that chiaroscuro, light and shadow pattern.
And so look at all of these stair steps of form.
That’s why I said earlier, think box logic.
The front of the nose.
The side of the nose.
The front of the cheek.
The side of the cheek.
The top of the forehead.
The underside of the forehead.
The top of the upper lid.
The underside of the upper lid.
The front of the eyeball.
The top of the lower lid.
The front of the lower lid.
The top of the cheek.
The front of the cheek.
The bottom of the jaw.
All of those are stairsteps.
Boxy changes that we need to map out for that audience.
If we do the major ones they’ll do the minor ones for us.
If we convincingly do it in the light we don’t have to do it in the shadows we found on our
If you look at your Sargents and your Rembrandts and Rubens and all those, you’ll find they
do little or no work in the shadows.
They do all their works in the lights.
Oftentimes they’ll do most of the work in the center of the canvas, very little at the
borders of the canvas, especially at the bottom of the canvas.
They’ll let all that fade out into nothingness.
But this is so beautifully done in the lights that you assume it’s all real when it’s
All they’re doing is playing that different value, different plane scenario all the way
Front of the cheek, side of the cheek.
Front of the nose, side of the nose.
Go look at Velázquez.
That’s really where Sargent learned from.
His absolute fidelity to structure, every single plane is perfectly mapped.
Here is what this formula does for us in terms of mapping out a strategy to render complex
If we have a side of the nose and a side of the eye and a side of the cheek and a side
of the finger and the finger and the finger and the hand, each of those side planes are
facing in a similar direction.
They will be a similar value.
All of the front planes.
Let’s say front top planes.
Front top plane, front top plane, upper lid, front top plane, top of the cheek.
All the upper structures of the lip and the chin.
Front top plane.
The top of the chest.
Front top plane.
Those will all be the same or similar values.
I say same or similar.
There might be a tan line.
It might be a dropoff from the light source.
As you can see on me, I’m getting darker as I drop down here.
It can vary a little bit, but in general those will be the lightest areas in that region.
These will be the middle value maybe, and the downplanes might be the darkest.
Different value, different plane.
Same value, same plane.
Now there is one other step to this that we won’t fully explore until we get into painting
classes and into composition also.
We’ll find this.
Same value, same plane.
Different value, different plane.
Same value, same plane.
Different value, different plane.
Now, if I make the object in front.
Let’s say the tree, a lighter value and the grass behind it a darker value and a forest
behind that a darker value yet, we will establish three planes, three values that will create
three planes in space.
We can create a depth of field.
They’ll use that in movies quite a bit.
Animation is wonderful at doing that.
They’ll do a rack focus where they’ll frame the middle range with dark values and
all the characters like Tarzan in the jungle walk through the middle path of the forest.
That’s lit light, but the foliage in front is dark, foliage in back is dark, and it frames
the action of the scene.
You can manipulate and compose your environment to pull the eye towards the viewer as we did
a little bit here when we lit the table a little lighter against the ball on this side,
a little less light on the other side.
So one more time.
If you make the values the same or similar, it’s going to look flat.
If you make the values distinctly different and use that squint test to check the difference,
make sure they separate nicely.
When we squint you’re going to get that form.
Different value, different plane.
You’re going to get that box logic.
Just go an look for all your front planes and they will maybe get lighter because the
light source is to the front.
Look at all your right side or your left side planes because they’re on the opposite side
of the light source.
They’ll all get darker.
Bottom planes will all get darker.
If you’re consistent with that, every time it’s a bottom plane it gets consistently
Every time it’s a left side plane it gets consistently darker.
Every time it goes up or to the left it gets consistently lighter.
It’s what we did on the ball on the tabletop.
That’s what you need to do in your work, whether it’s just a simple ball on a simple
flat surface or whether it’s a cast of thousands.
You want that consistency.
Whatever you do in your art, if you’re consistent and do it with confidence, do it with a little
bit of panache, they’re going to buy it.
They’re looking to come into your work and find something exciting.
And that frame that you put around your artwork is a window into a new world that can have
a completely new logic as long as it’s logical.
That means consistent.
Little boys can go to school to become magicians.
Pigs can talk.
Hollywood does it all the time.
You do it all the time.
Every time you make a mark that’s consistent with the next mark in some logical way.
It can be a really twisted oddball logic, or it can be the logic of nature.
Take your pick.
As long as your consistent, we’re going to buy into it.
That’s our first formula as realist artists trying to create the illusion, tricking the
audience into feeling the life, the form, the volume the depth,
rather than just intellectualizing it.
One more time.
Same value, same plane.
Different value, different plane.
Same value, same plane.
Different value, different plane.
Now you have one of the greatest tools you can have in just a two-value system for creating
great, powerful form and great, interesting contrast of composition in your artwork.
So, good luck with that.
Free to try
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