“I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow.”-Sylvia Plath
Drawing and painting with light and shadow is one of my absolute favourite types of art encounter. Here I share two encounters: making art with nature’s shadows and making art with shadow selves.
Shadows have been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe it’s because in the Pacific Northwest, at this wintery time of year, the sun is very low in the sky and shadows are prolific and incredibly long as they wrap their tentacles across forest pathways, roads and over walls.
There has always been something about the dance of shadow on a wall or on a face that intrigues me. Maybe it’s their monochromatic nature or the clarity of their silhouette. Though even more likely it’s their continual movement. For unless created by still artificial light, a shadow is always moving and changing- often very quickly since its very existence is directly tied to the movement of the earth relative to the sun. Drawing and painting shadow and light can place us in direct contact with this natural movement and change. We see and feel the movement of life.
” …the shadow of Wild Woman still lurks behind us during our days and in our nights. No matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four-footed.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés
In a parallel way, giving in-the-moment creative expression to shadow selves, thoughts, or impulses offers insight, releases energy and makes us feel more whole. Hidden aspects of self come into the light slowly revealing their power to transform our lives. By making art in the service of knowing ourselves more fully, we can slowly turn up the light and see what shadows reveal themselves because where there is bright light there is also shadow.
Art Encounter I: Drawing and Painting with Nature’s Shadows
The following narrative describes an encounter with an apple tree in my front yard.
Pick a bright day for this activity. Begin your session by setting an intention (see the Create Cycle in Sag-ing 8 www.sage-ing.com). To intend originates from the French entendre, intendre “to direct one’s attention” (in Modern French principally “to hear”), from the Latin intendere “turn one’s attention, strain,” literally to “stretch out, extend”. Record your intention then let it go. Literally. Setting an intention is like dropping a pebble into a still well of water and watching the ripples blossom outwards. By dropping your pebble into the well, you can then trace the meaning of your journey back to its source when you are finished. Don’t consciously hold on to the original intention, rather just carry on and create. Take a few moments and write down what you are curious about or what you are drawn toward today. Take your art supplies (see Sage-ing 9 for a materials list www.sage-ing.com) as you wander outside and open to a plant, animal, or tree whose shadow really appeals to you. Ask permission to engage.
To begin this activity it is probably enough to simply focus on tracing shapes and staying present to what is happening in the moment. Draw and paint by balancing the use of each hand, creating with both hands for part of the session and painting relatively equal amounts of time with your eyes open and closed. Close your eyes to choose the paint colours at least half the time.
I worked quickly to trace the branch shadows because they moved enough to be unrecognizable in the very short time it took me to pop up and run to my studio to get my camera. I felt incredibly free as I alternated outlining the shapes created by the shadows and the shape the bright dappled sunlight.
Then I painted inside the outlines. It was fun choosing the paint by running my fingers over the palette and letting my hand choose the colours. I painted the light spaces in and around the shadows. I loved giving colour to this beautiful dappled light. For my second painting, I again started by tracing shadows but this time I gave them colour and left the sun lit areas alone. The shadows moved a great deal in the short time it took to paint them.
For my third painting I quickly painted the shadows free hand. This was very loose and freeing yet I needed to stay focused and decisive to quickly paint either the light or shadowed areas without outlining them first. When all three paintings were complete, I laid them down on the ground on top of the shadows that had inspired their creation.
Immediately I envisioned outlining the whole tree onto a larger piece of paper. Outlining light and shadow then painting on a large piece of mural paper seemed like an exciting extension. So I ran to my studio to look at paper options and I chose vellum because it’s both smooth and shadowy.
I laid frosty vellum under the shadows of the apple tree. I coloured in the shadows free hand with gold oil stick. I realized quickly that I needed to outline the shadows first if I wanted them on the page. So, I traced the limbs, branches, and leaves in black marker and mused that it could be fun to work in watercolour or fluid acrylic to quickly paint the moving shadows.
Then I took the banner to my studio where I could lie it down on a smooth service because I found the grass to be too uneven to paint on. I was compelled to paint the shadows gold and the dappled light shapes all different colours. I finished the session by recording what I noticed and wondered about then began my inside-out image.
Art Encounter 2: Drawing and Painting Shadow Selves
“Our inner world is a complex exquisite and powerful play of colours, lights and shadows, a cathedral of consciousness as glorious as the natural world itself.” –Julia Cameron
Now I invite you to draw and paint spontaneously on a new page. Follow what attracts by tracking the flow of what fits easily in the moment. Begin an image by closing your eyes and drawing random shapes and lines. Use both hands at least part of the time. After 5 minutes or so bring your paints out and close your eyes to choose the colours. Keep your eyes closed as you paint with wild abandon, alternating hands and having fun. Do this for as long as you’d like. If it’s easier to paint in pitch darkness rather than closing your eyes, I invite you to try that. When you feel finished open your eyes. This is like turning on the light to better see a shadow image- the one created in the “dark”.
Using coloured watercolour pencils or permanent marker (wait until the paint is dry before using marker or the ink will stop running) outline interesting areas, define shadowy shapes, deepen and darken colour. Just as you outlined light and shadow in Part I, outline and define shape and colour in this new image. What is asking to be illuminated? Watch this video to learn how to extend your drawings and paintings http://youtu.be/XUu1sr71cH8
To finish, dialogue with a shape, a being, a colour, a natural shadow…. You can ask, “Is there anything you’d like to share?” Also take a few moments to record anything you noticed while you were creating and anything you wonder about. Take a few moments to revisit your original intention. Are there any new insights, observations or questions you have? Close by expressing gratitude in some way.
If you liked this post you may also like Tafoni Touch: Making Art with Texture.
Did you try this encounter? Consider sharing your images and experiences in comments below.
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