Why paint transparent shadows and thick lights?
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Thread: Why paint transparent shadows and thick lights?

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    Why paint transparent shadows and thick lights?

    I will preface this by saying I do very little oil painting--I know almost nothing about it, and am self taught in the medium.

    That being said, I wanted to know why it is that there is a tradition of painting the lights of a painting in a thick more impasto style while leaving more transparent washes for shadows. Is there a reason for this? I have heard shadows "have more depth" when painted thinly, but I don't fully understand how or why this is (or even what depth implies/means exactly in this case).

    Are there any example of artists who paint their shadows thickly? Is there even real a difference between transparent thin shadows and thick opaque ones? Is this something I should be worrying about? All these questions were popping up as I was doing a little Rembrandt oil study yesterday, and found myself naturally painting the shadows somewhat thickly in places. I don't use mediums really when painting, just use it straight from the tube. I tried to thin it down a bit with my mineral spirits, but found it looked odd and ended up painting over it with just paint.

    If anyone can shed more light on the matter it would be greatly appreciated.

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    Take a look at van gogh.

    im no expert, but i think transparency with shadows is because you want to maintain color variation and relationship.

    also if you are using traditional paints thickly you tend to betray spatial relationship because oils and acrylics have a sculptural quality when applied that way. highlights that life off the surface make more sense, and shadows that are flat read better

    But i think this depends really on the relevance of a shadowed area. If a majority of your image is in the shadow then i would bargain these rules are different.

    but im no expert...

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    Both of you are correct on some points. It basically comes down to tranparent shadows better indicate a lack of light while still maintaining some sense of form within them. With cast shadows in particular, the transparency/thin paint lets air/atmosphere/space exist. Opaque shadows sit right up there on the surface and don't have the same feel - the feel is more like "very dark passage or local color but in light".

    Impasto/opaque passages tend to "move forward" and so are better for passages in the light. If you paint enough you really start to see the difference pretty easily - opaque shadows just don't work. You don't tend to notice this as much either if you don't see paintings in person - print and monitor viewing tends to minimize the subtle differences.

    I can't think of any artists who paint opaque shadows...not to say there aren't any though.

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    To add to what Jeff posted, Sasha Beliaev (scrawnypaws) wrote something educational on the transparent/gritty shadows vs. opaque lights here a few years ago:


    Alright, you know we are constrained by range in our painting, so we need to resort to all imaginable dirty tricks to crate an illusion of the real space with its multitude of hues, colors etc. Usually, we exploit human perception; e.g. color contrast makes neutral grey look bluish on a warm (yellow) background etc.

    In terms of tonal values, we want to accentuate the contrast between lit and shaded/shadowed areas. If we use just tonal contrasts, we'd soon be out of options - each and every element of the painting would have the same pure whites pitched against blacks.

    So we use a different trick - textures themselves, and there's actually an analogue phenomena in the real world that inspired that idea.
    You know that low-intensity values (night time) look kinda fuzzy to a human eye. The latter also tends to see patterns and non-existent things in grainy surfaces.

    So, thick, confidently layed-in lights, when pitched against grainy vibrant shadows, provide that precious extra contrast we need to maintain the illusion of space and its infinity of tones.

    This also saved a great deal of costly paint to our Italian predecessors, a no mean feat in itself.

    And from esthetical point of view, you'd need a unifying element in your painting to tie together all different colors. Shadows that have same similar texture and tint do that job quite efficiently in classical oils.


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    Check out Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville. They both paint thicky in both highlights and shadows.

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    Shadows are a lack of information / light and painting them transparently and with little texture as possible 'pushes' them back into the painting. Contrasted with thick lights, it helps give the illusion of the form coming out into space. This can also be expanded by making edges softer and harder. Impasto in the lights can also be used to create skin texture. Like if you glaze over the dried impasto, some of it will sink into the holes which can simulate the pours / texture of the face.

    With regards to thinning down the paint; If it looked odd you might be using too much of the medium. Try to use as little as possible, just to make the paint manageable. How much you need can depend on which pigments you're using as some are more oily than others (titanium white for example is usually pretty stiff.) I've never liked just using turps, but something like turps : linseed oil : gloss varnish (1:1:1)

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    Ultimately, an artist can paint any way they choose, but they should be aware of what is going on. The thickness of the paint acts like a sculptural relief. Highlights, for example, would sit on top of a surface that is darker, and to achieve that dimension would need to be thicker to some degree. On the other hand, if your object is backlit you probably don't want the brighter areas in the back of the object to be thicker which will seem to push them forward.

    Many artists start off with a middle ground undertone value. The darker values don't need to be thick to get the value correct, but lighter shades often have to be built up some to cover that undertone correctly, especially if you're painting wet-into-wet. Thick dark areas of paint would also catch light on the brushstrokes and disrupt that sense of depth.

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    Another reason this system developed is that back in the day the only white pigment available was lead white. Artists of the past knew, even then, that as lead white saponifies it gets more and more transparent (All oil paint eventually gets more transparent with time. This is why, in some old master paintings, you'll see what's called pentimenti, which is where earlier elements of the painting that had been painted over start to show through.) By laying on the lights passages thickly, as the paint aged there was less chance of under-layers showing through and darkening the light areas.

    "Contrary to the belief of the layman, the essential of art is not to imitate nature, but under the guise of imitation to stir up excitement with pure plastic elements: measurements, directions, ornaments, lights, values, colors, substances, divided and organized according to the injunctions of natural laws. While so occupied, the artist never ceases to be subservient to nature, but instead of imitating the incidents in a paltry way, he imitates the laws."-Andre Lhote

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    jpacer! Thank you! I remember wanting to use the term a while back but forgot the name.

    pentimenti <-- is the term I was looking for some time ago.

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    thick paint will reflect a lot of light, creating sheen in the darks. this is also why you want to paint the darks with vertical brush strokes, as this will minimize sheen.

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    My favorite reason is that everyone is doing it....

    so thats enuff for me.

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