ILLUMINATION and COLOURS in SHADOWS -Issues of Design 38

Post 737 -Gautam Shah


This is the FOURTH article on series Illumination and Shadows

1 Claude Monet Garden at Sainte-Adresse 1866-1867

Monet said: ‘A Colour owes its brightness to the force of contrast, rather than to its inherent qualities’. He also said that primary colours look brightest, when they are brought into contrast with their complementaries’.

2 Alexander mosaic Absence of shadows (except at the bottom) by Magrippa at English Wikipedia

Colour contrast has drawn attention in drawn art forms as well as architecture, sculptures, ceramics, textiles and craft items. Colour contrasts emerge, when a different and lighter or darker colour is placed next to the other one. But colour contrasts also emerge, when a colour comes under differing levels of illumination or shadows. This realization was conspicuous in 3D forms. Such colour contrasts perceptions under natural or other illuminations and related shadows are affected by the ‘local’ reflections. The subtle grades of contrasts emerge due to varied brightness, from objects in different directions and in intensities due to many colours of the reflecting surfaces.

Colour Tones

8 Lion hunt. Mosaic from Pella ancient Macedonia) late 4th C BC, depicting Alexander the Great and Craterus. Housed in the Pella Museum

3 Fresco from the villa of P. Fannio Sinistore in Boscoreale, currently located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Colour contrasts were realized, first in mosaic arts as a form of ‘highlighting marks’. To make a mosaic figure or image to stand out from other similar entitles that needed emphasis (wider and darker-lighter edges). But mosaics had limited size and colour range, and this was not easy. Early drawn arts like Mosaics were equally ‘flat’. This was perhaps, as the medium of art Fresco, was a method of pigment impregnation onto wet plasters. The colours were zoned with scratched outlines and had little scope (time) for colour mixing or edge diffusion. Details were added in Tempera, for which one had to wait for the surface to thoroughly dry out. As a result fresco artist, used intense contrasting colours in demarcated zones of the fresco.

4 Terracotta funerary plaque 520–510 B.C.

7 Frescos in Cubiculum -Bedroom from the Villa of P Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale No shadows or Perspective

As the interiors became brighter with larger clerestory windows, there was a clear need to ‘add drama and mystery to the paintings’ through high contrast of colours. Painting themes were now not just depictive but narrative, and in the background included architecture, landscapes and non religious figures (political sponsors and donors). Holy figures were distinguished by bright ‘halo’. These halos and backgrounds, in brighter colours or gold gilding, made everything else seem darker, often gloomy. To lighten the perceived dark effect, many levels of sobered contrasts were added, and the result was a ‘flat’ composition. For the contrasts, the body contours, folds of fabrics, highlighting marks, differences between near-by and far-off objects, were formed of black or darker shades. The use of darker shades, for edge making, however, taught the value of shadowing with illumination.

9 Ajanta Cave 1 Ceremonial bath of Mahajanaka frasco India

10 Little or no use of body contour shadows Scene from Mahajataka King denounces worldly life at Ajanta Cave frescos India AD 475-500 Flickr Image 16580719987 f515f2b6fe_c

The shadows formed better depth contrasts. The shadows (related to illumination) were first placed with respect to the local needs. These ‘local needs’ in theme, created many shadows and sources of illumination, and also had as many directions. But soon shadows were modified as related to single the source of illumination. Such ‘related shadows’ made paintings lively and realistic.

12 ART by Fra Carnevale 1467 Light without source , but the shadows on the right side wall defy the logic.

5-1 Duccio di Buoninsegna Jesus opens the Eyes of a Man born Blind

Single source shadowing was very difficult in mosaic and very large mural paintings. There were few issues here. FIRST, Shadows were predominantly cast with a source of illumination from the left-top corner. This made objects towards the right-bottom corner suffused with long shadows. SECOND, The shadowing style adopted in artworks, did not match the actual illumination from the openings of the architectural space. THIRD, There was the belief that holy figures do not cast a shadow. These factors required a lot of experimentation. First, the problem required a painting to be narrow or the source of illumination shifted away from the extreme top-left corner. Second required a composition in consideration of the existing conditions of the architecture and the viewers’ position. Third issue was solved by forming graduated dark-light areas for body or dress contours and ignoring the shadows falling on the ground.

13 Jacopo Tintoretto's Wedding Feast at Cana at church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. The window sides remain dark but the illumination on the table is brilliant

From the days Painted Roman interior Murals, the Perspective was used to arrange ‘built or spatial’ elements in compositions. These were scaled for depth, but not specifically illuminated. Objects with visible sides were made darker towards the receding edge for greater effects of the depth. For greater perspective effect some of the parts of buildings or the spaces between the buildings were back lit, but shadows followed the front-based illumination. Illumination and shadows, did not come together in any purposive manner.

11 Feast in the House of Levi Paolo Veronese 1573 Use of Shadows for depth and contrast

21 Canaletto Venice Capriccio of the Courtyard of the Doges' Palace with the Scala dei Giganti AND 21 Viviano Codazzi and Domenico Gariguolo

It was from 1700s that Capriccio style of art for drawing fantastical architectural buildings and ruins, with inclusion of occasional staffage (figures), truly began to exploit the perspective. Areas of painting were illuminated through a direct single source of illumination or atmospheric distributed light. Areas that did not get illumination were treated to be mildly darker, thus creating a sense of contrast for depth. The illumination and shadows depended on tonal gradation, and this can be recognised and executed, if the areas are fairly large. Tonal gradation cannot be included in micro architectonic elements.


In Asia, perspective did not occur, though some inclined planes indicated the depth. Scaling of elements and figures was extremely illogical. The depth was through spatial zoning, like, frontal areas filled in with elements, dominantly involved in the narrative. The next mid-zone was for supportive elements like architectural and landscape features. The background, was used as a contrasting plane of lighter tones. The ethereal elements included here, served to balance the composition, by their ‘white space’ presence. There was complete absence of graded or directional illumination, and colour shades for shadowing.

16 Multiple sources of Illumination resulting in utter chaos Jacopo Tintoretto Last Supper 1592 1594

16-1 Joseph Wright of Derby 1768 An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump

28 Dramatic Colour Contrast

Illuminated and shaded areas are nominally differentiated with the tonal variations of the same colour (monochrome) or with different hues. But this effect was enhanced by texture contrast of physical roughening of the surface, like the gesso and impasto in art. Gesso is the base or foundation treatment, which imprints a texture on the art surface. Impasto effect is created by laying the paint in very thick layers, so that it can allow brush or painting-knife strokes to be visible.


It was in 1600s that artists were able to create textures, not just by scrapping the surface, but through directional or random texturing, as a simulated visual effect. The directional texturing became art of intaglio or gravure, and became style of impressionist art. The art of texturing a surface, also became Sfumato style of art, as forming a soft transition between colours and tones to achieve distinct realism.

17 Georgio de Chirico Shadows (without tonal variations) and Colour Contrasts 1913-1917

Shadows depend on the strength and distance of the source of illumination. Candle, Lamp, electric or fire illuminations, unlike the Solar light, are at finite distances and of limited intensity. Both, however, form shadows with respect to the elevation of the objects. Solar light offers vast grades of reflections from nearby surfaces, but, other illuminations can provide small cone of receding strength. The skill to represent the colour tonal variations in shadows from the reflected light was grasped post Renaissance period. The nature of the colour within a shadow is mainly due to the intensity of reflected light and the colour (from the reflective surface).

18 Andrea Pozzo Plafond Ceiling Art The Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius

The ceilings (flat, dome, vault or other configurations) get illumination from windows and clerestory openings, in many directions. The ceilings and upper sections of tall walls were used for illusionistic paintings, with features like floating angels and clouds, foreshortened figures and pseudo architectural elements. The details were seen from distance, so drawn in an impressionistic manner with wild brush strokes. Such ceilings, known as Plafond art, had the lower edge, drawn in dark and contrasting colours and shadows, but the top central portion forming the upper limit of the room, were made with blue of the skies to look ethereal. Plafonds (17th to early 19 C) offered great lessons for treating architectural spaces with illumination and shadows.

24 Variations in Illumination through day-night

23 Single souce harsh Illumination George C Ault and Hopper

Mannerist painters and later Baroque artists used extreme intense contrasts between light and dark, almost obscuring their subjects to lend drama and mystery to the paintings’.

19 Monet art Without Shadows but colour differentiation between main and side faces

When Monet painted his series of haystacks, his main concern was to show that in reality, the colour of light and the colour of shadow, depending of the time of day, both, change simultaneously and dramatically. Artists of 19th C used comparatively, stronger dark shades for heightened impressionistic realism. This began to change with the onset of next century, when lighter colour shades (perhaps due to the Titanium Dioxide) were available. The subject matter changed from realistic to ‘objective’ abstraction. Here the source of illumination was unrecognizable, and so the shadows were nonexistent.

20 Edouard Leon Cortes Twilight hours illumination