How To Judge A Picture – Light And Shade

Light and shade independent of color, or what is often called chiaroscura, is a something with which you are possibly familiar in a certain way, but a few illustrations of it may not be out of place here. For there is more to it than a man walking down the street with his shadow following him on the sidewalk, or the patch of dark green under the maple-tree on the lawn.

In viewing surrounding objects we too often see them only in silhouette or outline. A person’s face with which we are familiar is seen and recognized by its features; we do not see or take into ac-count the lights or shades upon it, notwithstanding there is a ridge of light running down the forehead, nose, and chin (if the face be turned toward us), just as Rembrandt has painted it again and again. A tree in an orchard looks to us to be cast in flat mass against the sky, to have an irregular hard outline like that of the apple-tree in the spelling book of our youth ; but if we blur the outlines by partially closing our eyes, and then look, not for line or color, but for patches of light and shade, we shall find them scattered quite conspicuously throughout the foliage. Wherever a hollow space is left by the branches there will be deep shadow, and wherever the branches extend far out beyond the others there will be bright light. The arm of a mahogany chair may seem to have told you its whole history at first glance; but just for curiosity look at it again. Half close your eyes, and when looking for light and shadows always do this, and now you see something you had not noticed before. The polished surface reflects like a mirror and upon it are patches of light as bright as a sheet of white paper. You rather doubt that last assertion, I know, but possibly you do not yet realize how bright sunlight and its reflection really are. Mr. Ruskin says that the deep blue sky at noonday is whiter than any piece of paper made, and upon a question of nature Mr. Ruskin is a very good authority. Hold up against the sky- the whitest substance you can find and see how dark the latter will grow by comparison.

There is nothing in nature, from a pebble to a mountain and from a cat to a king, that does not possess to the artist’s eye its proportions of light and shade. As school-children we gathered some idea of the appearance of the world in globe when it is night on our part of it. We can still remember the picture of the globe half in light and half in shade, and we can remember the experiment of using a lamp for a sun. In a less degree, and more modulated by diversities of light and shade, appears every object in nature when there is light in the heavens. There is always a point of high light and an opposite point of deep shadow, and in art it is the maintenance of the just relations between the light and the shade that gives to objects that rounded and real appearance which they hold in nature.

Chiaroscura, or light and shade, then, may be said to be the art-means whereby objects are cast in relief upon flat surface and made to assume the appearance of reality. Of course, it is of the very first importance, and without it painting would only be an outline filled in with color, like the Egyptian wall pictures. In fact, these latter fully illustrate the importance of chiaroscura by its absence. The Egyptian battle-pieces show no shadows ; the Egyptian landscapes show no lights. The painters in the days of the Pharaohs did not know about light and shade, or at least never made practical use of it to any extent. They saw the outline of form only, and the painting of this without relief gave to their work that childish, unnatural look which characterizes it.

In modern times there is nothing so extreme as the lack of light and shade, yet there are nevertheless many features of chiaroscura disregarded or overlooked by our artists. The foreground of a picture, for instance, is very often meaningless rubbish dragged in to fill up, simply because it is not broken with variations and inequalities of light, as every foreground appears in nature. In landscape there is never a patch so large as one’s hand of the same color or shade, unless it be sky or water, yet in pictures you will often see whole fields or forests well enough set forth in outline but nearly all of the same shade or tint. Our young men who fancy impressionism, and who like to paint what they call “impressions,” are in the main correct in their handling of light and shade, though often extreme. Their masses of light and of shade, while correct enough in quantity, lack the diversity in quality which appears in nature. Surrounding features that reflect or break reflections produce a thousand diferent phases and complications of chiaroscura which the artist must study and comprehend, otherwise there will always be something lacking in his work. Where nature is departed from by not being well understood, and the true relation of every part of a picture to the high light is disregarded, the effect of giving the canvas an unpleasantly hard expression—a mechanical appearance characteristic of the cheap oil-painting peddled on the street corner—is noticeable at once.

All objects in a picture, then, require to be rounded out and placed in proper relation by giving to each a due proportion of light and shade. The intensity of the light is immaterial provided it is continuous, and extends proportionately throughout the scene. It makes no difference whether a face be painted in the studio or in open sunlight if the lights on the nose, chin, and forehead are in proportion to the shadows on the sides of the face and neck. There never was a sunlight painted that remotely approximated the light of the sun’s rays ; and so there never was a moonlight scene on canvas that ever came within a hundred degrees of reaching the density of shadows cast at night. But this is of little consequence provided the proportionate relationship between the lights and shades is kept up. The artist is like the singer : he may not reach such high or low notes so he transposes the key yet retains the relationship. The necessity of this relationship being maintained, no matter what the key, is absolute.

Though the intensity of light may be immaterial provided the shadows are in proportion, yet the quanta. of light, if it exceed the quantity of shade, will make a garish show upon the canvas. I might mention a celebrated picture at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that instances this short-coming very forcibly—Meissonier’s “Friedland—i807.” In this canvas it would be hard to say where shadow was needed, for each object has its proper shading; but there is a lack of shadow masses (a fault of composition) to relieve the garishness of the lights. Decamps and Fromentin painted the glaring tropical sunlight, but they made no mistake about balancing it with tropical shadows ; and Corot, with all his love of light, never failed to relieve it with quantities of shade. Leonardo, Correggio, Rembrandt, and Murillo cannot be said to have used too much shade, because they always offset it by high lights in strong contrast. The effects they produced may be called “forced” effects, but they are not the less brilliant.

In order to produce the best art it is necessary that the one point from which the light comes should be maintained throughout the whole can-vas. To paint one half of a tree in the morning, when the sun is in the east, and another half in the afternoon, when the sun is in the west, would seem to be as poor art as the painting of part of a figure in the studio and part in the open air. Consistency and proportion should rule in a canvas, though it may as well be admitted that in the works of some of the best of artists these qualities are often disregarded. . Diaz, for instance, in his finest Fontainebleau landscapes, seems to have a dozen suns in the sky from the way the contradictory light falls ; and Fromentin and Decamps often contorted light to suit a special purpose, very much as Michael Angelo did the drawing of the human figure. But we cannot consider these shortcomings as virtues, however effective artifices they may have proved in strong hands. They do not form suitable rules for people of less talent to follow, and I should say, despite brilliant exceptions, that in examining pictures it would better be looked to, first, that every thing, no matter how small it may be, has its due proportion of light and shade ; second, that there be one point of the compass from which the light comes ; third, that there be a center of light in the picture itself, from which all the other lights radiate and decrease until they are lost in color or shadow.

This third point needs little explanation, for the illustrations used to exemplify gradation in tone and color will apply to light as well ; and more-over I have set forth this theory of light else-where. There must be a central and predominant light, as there is a central and predominant color, and from this there is a gradation toward the sides of the picture, ending in shadow or deep color tones. The sun with its different halos, or a lighted lamp in a room, are extreme cases pointing to the principle. The question of whether the central light is always present in nature need not obtrude itself here. It is necessary that it should be so in art. There must be one center of interest marked by light, or bright color (which is in effect the same thing), to which the eye will be inevitably drawn ; and we shall see hereafter that the maintenance of this central light by the degradation of all lesser lights is not only good art, but absolutely indispensable to the production of strong work. Not a few of the great painters—Correggio, Rembrandt, Corot, and Decamps—depended so much upon the forcible effects of light as to be known in the art world as luminarists, in contradistinction to colorists. Their art is perhaps the best illustration I can offer of the manner in which it should be handled.

A passing word and a caution regarding the technical way in which light is painted. The French and Spanish artists paint it superbly, especially men like Fortuny, Stevens, Rico, Boldini; that is, they paint it as it is—fresh and bright, not misty and hazy with dust. The English, as a rule, do not paint it well, because they fail to give it sufficient relief, and their handling is “dry” and hard. The Germans, especially those of Dusseldorf pupilage, paint it badly in its. effect on objects. To produce reflected light upon a piece of furniture they throw a scumbling of white over the object, which gives the effect of flour being sprinkled upon it; to produce light upon the hands or face they are painted like lumps of dough ; to produce sunlight on a tree-trunk the trunk is beautifully frescoed with a mixture of white and chrome-yellow. All this is poor work, which you will soon come to recognize as such.

Still another word regarding shadows. You will often see among the paintings of to-day (by these same French and Spanish painters) representations of gardens, lawns, meadows, or streets in full sun-light. You will perhaps be startled by the hard, al-most black, shadows cast by the various objects in the landscape, and will be inclined to look upon them as exaggerations. You may hear some artist or critic speak of them as ” forced ” for the sake of contrast ; but before you believe the accusation make a few observations on your own account Place your finger over a sheet of paper and corn. pare the shadow cast with the finger casting it. You will find the shadow much the darker. Look at a person’s face and you will find the shadows under the chin much darker than the chin itself. Compare a shadow on the sidewalk with the object producing it, whether it be a person, a horse, or a building, and you will again find the shadow the darker. From this you can formulate the general rule, subject, however, to some exceptions, that in full sunshine the shadows are darker than the objects casting them; and if you will apply this rule to the landscapes we have instanced you will not find the shadows ” forced ” or overdone in any way, but, on the contrary, so natural that we do not recognize their truth at first. Again, objects may be rounded off or blurred by atmosphere, but their shadows are not so easily affected. They are hard, sharp in outline, and flat. It will be remembered that they appear so only in full light, for every one knows that when the sun goes behind a cloud the shadows, so far as the casual observer notices, disappear.