Sunday, August 1, 2010

Proxy Light --> Proxy Knowledge

Here's a really specific topic that's probably of limited interest to the non-painter.

Before I get going, may I just add this? Теплые приветствия нашим русским читателям!

So anyway, I'm working on this painting in which the face probably shouldn't be lit. The composition really doesn't want the face lit. But I am unable to subordinate my fidelity to the model to fidelity to the painting. Plainly speaking, I hate to have a painting with the face unseen. That's why I do so little work with backs and butts; you have to produce a really twisty pose to have a face in a painting like that, and I don't have any ideas that motivate such twisty poses.

Anyhow, on this painting, the face doesn't want to be lit, and yet I'm lighting it anyway. I figured out a way to just barely light it - to have hardly any light on the eye - and yet to have the eye read clearly. Here's the outcome of the first session:

If you look closely, you'll see that the iris and pupil are not really painted at all. The entire region - the inner portion of the eye - merges into a single patch of uniform dark. What is lit is the white of the eye. That's the only part you can actually technically see. You think you can see the iris and pupil, but you can't; you simply know where they are. And you don't directly know where they are; you only know 1) where they could be and 2) where they aren't. Your mind puts those two pieces of information together and provides a complete model of the eye, even though the light is directed such that the relevant part of the eye is actually completely invisible. Confused about what I mean? Compare that eye with the similar eye placement in my recent painting The Lightning which, incidentally, is covered extensively in my article in this month's International Artist and you should run out and buy it:

In this painting, the light in the darks is much brighter, and you can see every part of the eye. In the new painting, I am using proxy lighting to produce proxy knowledge. By means of the thing that is lit, you are able to fill in what isn't lit. The dark part is lit by proxy light provided by your mind. Your direct knowledge yields proxy knowledge. I get to have it both ways - I can leave the eye unlit, as the physics of the composition wants, without hiding the eye, which is what I want.

I agonized about the eye a lot before I started painting, and had this little trick in mind in advance. Thinking it over later, I realized I had pulled a similar stunt a few years ago, in this painting, The Saint:

As you can see, I really punched the light in the lit part of the eye. I planned for the unnatural brightness in the white of the eye and the nose, making them part of an aesthetic mimicking the jagged unreality of medieval iconography. Why would I do that? Because I knew that my technique at the time wasn't strong enough for me to portray natural light levels as I saw them in front of me. I always try to adapt my aesthetic to match my technical limits, while pushing my technical limits a bit farther each time. Not a bad idea, I think - the best example of this that I can think of Kevin Smith's first movie, Clerks, which was very adeptly designed to match his ignorance of filmmaking at the time.

Thinking more about this very specific trick for a very specific lighting and facial-angle situation, I suddenly thought that I probably learned it from Sargent. Like many an aspiring contemporary figurative painter, I started out thinking I wanted to paint like Sargent. Since then, I've changed my mind, but I still admire Sargent a great deal, and I still study him. I have this painting of his on a corkboard above the desk in my office:

If you look, you'll see that he deploys this exact trick in his deeply underlit painting. He also gets to have his cake and eat it too. He preserves the profound chiaroscuro, he turns the face away from the light - and he doesn't lose the eye. His merest hint of the eye pushes it much farther than I have in either of the paintings I'm showing you here, but let's face it, he's still much better at painting than I am.

If you are a non-painter, and you've still made it this far, I think this can serve as a useful example of the mighty force of detail that the painter considers in producing an image. We're trained by photography to consider image-making effortless, but actually, every little thing you see on the canvas is the outcome of thought and decision. Perhaps these thoughts and decisions are not always analytic, the way I am describing them here - often, they are intuitive or unconscious - but they all result from grappling with the specifics of the situation and with the specific situation's relationship with recurring general issues. The question of how to convey information about an unlit object is a general issue, and this is a very detailed exposition of a particular solution to it in a particular set of circumstances. I think that climbing the mountain of these proliferating problems is a good part of the fun of painting.


  1. As a non-painter I will say that I find this all very interesting.

    And as a non-painter, I will ask a decidedly non-painterly question. This, of course, is not unprecedented.

    But when you have a small detail like this that plays such a large part in the overall success of a painting, I wondered if you did it first and kind of painted around it? I feel like I would be nervous, spending tens of hours painting all around it and then not sure if I'm able to pull off the detail in the end.

  2. >As a non-painter I will say that I find this all very interesting.

    Oh - good. Excellent! Of course, you're a print-maker, so your opinion as to its general interest can hardly be said to count.

    As to your question, I try not to indulge any biases like that. I paint it when I get to it, basically, and I don't let myself be nervous. Of course, I'm sort of globally nervous, but I'm not locally nervous. I just do the next thing. In this case, I did the forehead first, then the eye, then the nose and cheek, and so on. I went back in once the entire face was done and broke up the surface a little so it wouldn't look too glassy, and then near the end I darkened everything, and took the chance to make the eye less well-defined. But the theoretical problem of the eye didn't alter the way I painted, and in fact wasn't the only technical issue I was confronting, it was just the one I thought was least boring to write about...