Shadow theory

Two exhibition openings in one week? Ah, to be the Duchess.

Friday evening we hopped a bus to New Farm, to sight a spectacle of lemony-fresh still-lifes painted ever-so-skilfully by one Claire Stening. Claire cleverly depicts her kitchen top drawer, her collection of ceramic bowls, and sunny rows of lemons and pears in a way that makes kitchens glorious vibrant retreats.

Perhaps it’s the contrast of the worn with the shiny and bright that makes her assortment of objects more homely than too crisp. For though often crisp, she is not afraid to bring elements of the yucky to her images. Old gumboots, old buckets, and snails, smelly fish and browning pears, tarnished spoons that have lost their gleam and picked up some odd stains. The lemons have little round stickers boasting, ‘Produce of Australia,’ and sporting PLU codes. The mundane, the historic, the intricately decorated slip together with little fanfare. The overriding cleanliness of the paintings save them from being overwhelmed by the messy, smelly bits.

(Forgive the poor quality phone photography in this post)

It was interesting to view these works in light of an old book I am reading by Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration (1947)*, which is gratuitously filled with nudes and pinups, though certainly not to its detriment. I have been reading some age-old wisdom about depicting things thoughtfully. One would think that drawing and painting is all about the eye, and the hand, and training them to cooperate. Books ought not help one draw, for books engage the brain, which plays no part in transcribing what is seen, other than powering the muscles and reading the retinas. I have begun to realise otherwise.

Loomis writes extensively about all sorts of things that seem very obvious to the artist, such as the fact that background seem blurry to the eye when focusing on the foreground, unlike in much photography, and therefore greater realism is to be obtained by in fact softening the details of things in the background. We know that the real world doesn’t look like photographs, but sometimes it is just difficult to pinpoint why. This is where books by well-practiced, thoughtful artists come in. They tell you how to consciously mimic vision, by carefully thinking about how we see.

Loomis has an enlightening section on shadows, which I must admit I was sceptical about, if only because it seemed to involve too much thought. However, on seeing Stening’s work, I started to think that his principles are far more intuitive than one might first think.

Here is his shadow theory:

From Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration

Each tonal chart refers to a different type of lighting: strong sunlight, diffuse daylight, strong artificial light and so forth. A bit abstract. Sure, make it real dark if it’s not daylight. However, combined with some theory on reflected light, which results in strong sunlight forcing a second, dimmer light source to light up the shadow, we start to see how this is in fact something we experience every single day:

From Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration

I encourage you to look up Stening’s pears, because they illustrate this so precisely. While her other objects bask in varying lights that produce highlights and black shadows, her pears are lighted from behind by a block of bright light easily identified as sunlight. First, it shines through a window and is cut into a shape, rather than engulfing the whole painting. Second, the shadows, while darkest near the pears, seem to glow, and the dark sides of the pears also gleam a little golden, though only faintly. No matter what you know about shadow theory, an untrained eye can look at this painting and detect that this light source is more natural than that of the other paintings. It is possible to know what one is experiencing without being able to articulate it. The goal of the artist is to learn how to articulate it, such that she can manipulate it and present a more convincing image to the viewer.

So kudos to Claire, for producing such convincing work. And for including some yucky things amongst the shiny things.

Stillness is showing at the Edwina Corlette Gallery, New Farm, Brisbane.

* Loomis, Andrew. 1947. Creative Illustration. New York: The Viking Press.


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