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THE LIGHTLESS MEDIEVAL WORLD
In the mid-eastern and medieval tradition, early paintings of Christ and His followers depicted these spiritual beings as icons occupying a very flat pictorial world. The figures were drawn with simple lines and colored with mainly earth-toned pigments. Light, emitted by halos, as well as spiritual auras, were expressed in intricate designs and patterns or gilded to represent light and spirituality.
THE ADVENT OF LIGHT AND SHADOW
It wasn't until the early Renaissance that artists began painting light and shadow to give volume to their subjects. This development in painting brought Christ and His followers down from their iconographic realm to an earthly environment lit by sunlight by day and candlelight by night. The medieval iconic, flat world became charged with light and shadow and surrounded by sunlight. This world could be swept by the wind, wet with rain and covered with snow. Iconic figures were changed to street level people with graying beards, warts, clothing contemporary to the time, and faces full of emotion. This kind of new painting invited the viewer to imagine meeting one of the saints or Christ Himself coming around a corner in a market place in Rome.
DEPICTING SPACE AND THE SPIRITUAL
Giotto, an early Renaissance Italian artist, took the medieval style of painting to a new dimension by adding shading and highlighting. Giotto placed religious figures in a landscape filled with local flora, fauna and local architecture. And with that, expressions changed to emphasize feelings of happiness or sadness. Gestures changed to depict emotion or emphasize the telling of a story or the event depicted. The drapery of robes and curtains became soft and full of shadows and lights. Spiritual light was depicted in beams and rays of illumination, not patterns, designs or applications of gold. A person illuminated by auras of white light was spiritually enlightened. This concept was refined by many artists of the Renaissance, including Michelangelo, DaVinci and later, Rembrandt. The Renaissance changed forever the way we see pictorial objects when we look at a painting.
THE SCIENCE OF LIGHT IN PAINTING
With the Industrial Revolution, however, something happened in France. Artists there were very aware of scientific studies, newly revealed, stating that refracted white light was comprised of a spectrum of colors. French artists, inspired by this information, began painting in a new way. They surmised that if colors from their palette were put down on the canvas in tiny dabs or dots in the colors like refracted light, these many little dabs of color would make one color. And indeed, this happened in Impressionist paintings. As the viewer stepped back to observe the entire painting, the colors came together to form one very vibrant and shimmering atmosphere. The effect was astounding, but traditionalists, critical of the vagueness and lack of detail of this new perception of light, labeled (derisively) these artists as Impressionists.
With Impressionism, emphasis on color slowly developed into seeing light through color, apart from any subject matter whatsoever. That progression, into the 20th century, led to a new investigation of light within colors themselves. In abstract paintings, lighter and darker colors had their own space in the canvas environment. Volumes could be created by colors alone and the viewer would read lighter colors as advancing and darker colors as retreating. Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollack were creating spatial environments with color and dynamic brushwork and paint applications
A NOURISHMENT OF LIGHT
Depiction of light in the creative field is never ending. Today, it can be part of the content or subject matter, or it can be abstract. In our quest for depicting and interpreting the quality of light, we seek to satisfy our physical, aesthetic and spiritual needs. Paintings satisfy these basic needs when light and shadow in a painting, for example, in a still life, celebrate the drama of earthly light on common objects, by illuminating them and makes the common, everyday objects larger than life. To this day, a painting of religious content augmented by light speaks powerfully to our spirituality. In this contemporary world, we are subconsciously enlightened when we view an abstract painting, which has no identifiable subject matter, but only colors and patterns. Through seeing passages of light and dark color, we are elevated, enlightened and invited to celebrate the beauty of light.
Lois DeWitt is a certified lighting specialist, an artist, a cookbook author, "Pop It In The Toaster Oven," a poet and a Standard Poodle admirer. She cooks gourmet meals for friends, walks along the shore with her dog, Charley, and tends her vegetable garden in Wilmington, NC. She also works part time in the Electrical Department at The Home Depot.
More about how to depict light and shadow on Lois' Free Online Art Classes Website.