“Light and shadow are used as devices to aid in the clarity of the composition.”
I normally use shading and highlighting in my paintings and often in my collages. This effect is primarily for distinguishing one form from another. For instance, when two elements are next to each other of the same color I might shade or highlight one or the other to distinguish them from each other so that the understanding of the structure, of its construction, is maintained and do not blend together into one form. I always do this in the paintings to show the underlying collage grid that is the basis of the logic of the composition.
In traditional painting from, let us say the renaissance, there is the technique of chiaroscuro wherein the painter uses light and shadow to flesh out three dimensions on the two dimensional surface. There are many master drawings from that time that I always have had a great love of and the study of light was very much on the minds of artists at that time.
In the Modernist period of experimentation and under the influence of non-Western ‘primitive art’ there was among many important artists of the time an inclination to eliminate this kind of modeling especially in abstract art in an effort to purge western art of its academic foundations in the hunt for what art would become in what was, for them, ‘the future’.
Those of us living in their future have then to consider their ideas as those ideas later developed. This is now a part of our recent past. But then everything else about art is also in the past from our perspective. So for me everything from art history is up for reconsideration. In terms of techniques, there are many I personally do not consider of use in my own work but I am not inclined to abandon the technique of chiaroscuro. I find it quite useful for my purposes.
Virtually all of my paintings involved with typography employ shading and highlighting. Aside from distinguishing the original constructive assembly of the composition there is often the experimentation of the movement of the eye through the composition. The shading helps to establish the hierarchy of the forms in the composition, locating them in front or behind each other, manipulating and connecting the positive and negative space, creating points of interest or attention and giving, on occasion, a feeling of volume and, now and then, a little joke here and there, something to cause the viewer to stop and question: ‘Wait, what?’.
In relation to painterly space, the indication of volume in the forms is usually kept close to the picture plane without an attempt to over emphasize protrusion into the 3rd dimension. The use of both space and light are, for me, primarily theoretical and utilitarian as mentioned above so I am not too concerned with realism or accuracy or, for that matter, consistency. Light does not need to fall from a certain direction across the whole surface. In classical renaissance paintings, the light is very often from a 10:00 am angle of the sun. This light is from the top left and casts shadows to the bottom right. This angle of lighting, because it has been used so many times, helps viewers read the volume intended in the forms of the painting. So, for that reason, I will often have that default angle in mind when shading and highlighting. Light and shadow are used as devices to aid in the clarity of the composition.
Andrea Del Verrocchio- Head of a Woman with Elaborate Coiffure – c. 1475, charcoal (some oiled?), heightened with lead white, pen and brown ink (r.), charcoal (v.), 324 x 273 mm., British Museum.