Our minds play tricks on us. We rarely paint what we see. Most often we paint an unconscious projection of incorrect ideas about what we think we see. Ironically, people sometimes call this latter process ‘painting what you know rather than what you see’, as if they really knew and understood what they were looking at.
What we see, really, is a function of the interaction of light and form. The result of this interaction is the configuration of the light. This ‘configured light’ is the light reflected from the form and imprinted with the image of the form.
When we look at a form, we see that some part of the form is illuminated by the primary light source (‘form in the light’), and that the rest is in the shadow (‘form in the shadow’). Both in the light, and in the shadow, the degree of the concentration of the light varies over the surface. In the light, this is a function of the primary light, in the shadow, of reflected light. This distribution of the concentration of the light on the form is correlated with the three-dimensional, volumetric shape of the form itself.
Seen abstractly, the light and shadow on a form have shapes, like two jigsaw puzzle pieces fitting one into the other. We refer to these abstract, boundary shapes as ‘outside’ shapes. Within these outside shapes, there are light gradations, aka directional, tonal progressions. We use the term ‘shape of the light’ to refer to both the outside shape, and the inside progression.
See, for instance the progression of the light on the chin of the model in the drawing above. The outside shape of the light on the chin is bounded above by the cast shadow of the lower lip and below by the form shadow, or terminator. To the right, the form of the chin wedges into forms of the lower lip, cheek and jaw. The light is most concentrated on the upper right of the chin form, just below the cast shadow of the lower lip, and diminishes gradually, as the form rolls away from the light toward the lower left. Eventually the chin drops into the shadow at the terminator. Note that the surface of the chin in the light adjacent to the terminator is quite dark in comparison to the lighter lights above.
It’s very important to understand that the shape of the light and the shape of the form, even though they’re related to one another, are two different things. The shape of the light is a visual phenomenon, a projection of light, one might say, upon the visual cortex. The shape of the form, on the other hand, is the three-dimensional, volumetric, sculptural shape of the form in space.
If we look at the crescent moon we can begin to understand the distinction between these two different kinds of shape. When we look at the moon we see a huge ball hanging above us in space. The moon is spherical. This is the shape of the form. But, at the same time, we also see a crescent shape of light. The crescent, and the tonal progression within the crescent, is the shape of the light.
One of the things we do when we the paint the human head is convey the impression of the form of the head as a volume in space. However, not being sculptors, we don’t actually recreate its volume in clay or stone. Instead, painting on a flat surface, we suggest a virtual head in space using shape and tone. We represent the tonal impression, the effect of the light we experience visually when we look at the head. It is in representing the effect of the light that our understanding of the shape of the light comes into play.
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