Using Lighting Systems to Establish Emphasis and Logic in Your Art
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Using Lighting Systems to Establish Emphasis and Logic in Your Art

This article discusses how planning a lighting system from the beginning of a drawing will improve the success of the piece by establishing a hierarchy of imagery.
    The difference between a good drawing and a great drawing often comes down to the lighting system. The key here is to plan it out from the earliest sketches. Many people tend to sketch only outlines and ignore color or shade until the final piece. With the proper planning, a good lighting system can add depth, feeling and realism to a piece.

      In order to plan light and dark in a piece, you must consider more than a light source and the cast shadow it creates. Go beyond these basic physics of light and use the lighting system to distinguish focal points. The eye will be drawn to wherever a light shade is next to a dark one. This is a good place to start; decide what the focus of your piece will be and then emphasize this point with contrast between light and dark. In addition to establishing the focal point, a carefully considered lighting system can also build a hierarchy into a piece because dark shades tend to recede, although using light tones in the background can also serve to render atmospheric perspective.

Complex shadows and highlights do more than add realism and unity to a piece. If used properly, shadows can heighten the interaction between different objects and figures within a composition. Shading better defines areas of overlap, transparency, and reflection when line work and flat colors often leave these potential points of interest ambiguously unresolved. A good lighting systems means there won’t be anything that doesn’t fit well within the general gestalt of the composition.

      To begin formulating a system for a drawing or painting, keep in mind a few rules.

1) Whatever area has the most contrast (white white against black black) will dominate the art.

Choose this point carefully. It is a good opportunity to emphasize the meaning of a piece so that the viewer doesn’t lose sight of what is important within the work.

2) The direction of the light and the shadows should serve to draw the eye through the piece in a logical manner. The eye perceives these implied lines in the same manner as an arrow, and will follow them (hopefully to a focal point of the piece).

3) A balance between black and white is essential to creating a legible piece. Printmakers will tell you that any good print is split 50/50 between black and white.

     There are simple steps you can take to implement these ideas. Earlier I said to include shading in your initial sketches. The best way to do this is to draw outlines of your image (like a coloring book), then photocopy the sketch and fill in the darks and lights in different configurations. Another thing to try is standing back from your drawing. If the focal point of your piece is the same from fifteen feet away as it is from arm’s length then you probable have a good balance of black and white, and contrast in the right places.

      These are just the basic starting points, but try these ideas out in your sketches and the variety and strength of your images will quickly improve. Lighting systems are often overlooked and underappreciated, but they are essential in creating a piece that has balance, emphasis and impact.

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