Casting light on the subject of cast shadows

January 29, 2018

I taught a lot last week. Over the course of five days I was at three dining room tables, in a church basement, in an arcade (not the shopping mall variety but the hallways that surround Walker Court at the Art Gallery of Ontario) and a room full of bears. Bear sculptures, that is. I taught linocut, watercolour and drawing. I spent some time thinking about artists who use repetition, and artists whose carvings are solid and weighty and yet translate the spirit world.


On Tuesday and Wednesday at the AGO, we spent the first half hour of class drawing cast shadows. I told my students: “You can’t (i.e. shouldn’t) outline a cast shadow.” While a line around the drawing of a solid form will often flatten the drawing, a line around a cast shadow will, paradoxically, make it pop forward. That’s not how shadows work, they lie beyond the object, and adhere or conform to another surface. Cast shadows are self-effacing, they lie down or flatten themselves against the wall. Instead of a line at the edge of the grey tone, we need to erase a clean edge or smudge the tone outward until it disappears.

In my best teacher-y voice, I said, “Two things define cast shadows, the form that is blocking the light, which accounts for a curvy, jagged or sleek periphery and the surface the cast shadow is thrown against or projected upon.” But I was overlooking the other factors: the angle of the light source and the light source itself. Sometimes there’s a window or windows, a skylight, or a sky, or a broad high wave of glass like the wall of windows and arches designed by Frank Gehry for the façade of the AGO.

This wave of glass houses the Galleria Italia and that’s where I start my classes and often there’s so much ambient light I can’t create a cast shadow for my little demonstration. In an instance like that the light in the room is active, bouncing off various white, pale or shiny and reflective surfaces. I think of Peter Pan when I teach this topic, because he lacks a shadow, and finally Wendy has to sew it on the heels of his little peaked slippers. Until then he is naked and boyish and incapable of maturing, because he is all adventure and dream.  He lacks rootedness and staying power. The myth of Peter Pan is persistent in our culture because we admire a kind of perennial boyhood, a flightiness, and because it’s human nature to want to avoid the shadow that can be present in our own decisions. But we were talking about drawing so I will get back to the point.

When you draw you have to see each part or element separately, if only to understand how to reassemble these—or their likenesses—on a two dimensional surface. Should be easy, eh? What could be more two dimensional than a shadow?

We carried our stools back down to Walker Court.  I told my students to pick a sculpture, one those that have recently been installed in the arcades alongside the space now dominated by Gehry’s spiral staircase.  The plexiglass vitrines and highly polished plinths—probably also plexiglass but opaque—on which the Inuit carvings stand, posed some challenges. It’s not always easy to see cast shadow when it is superimposed on the reflection of a dark carved object which is also overlaid with the reflection and the cast shadow of the viewer. That’s you, the person drawing, who is trying to distinguish between all those subtle and somewhat translucent layers. We are trying to take vision apart, which is both challenging and frankly a bit delicious, at least I think so. All those solids and surfaces are having their impact on light, yielding to it or interacting with it or bouncing it back where it came from. And the drawing is like a slice through time and space, a way of stopping light, recording it. Drawing is, at one and the same time, practical and poetic, so of the world and of the mind.  Writing or talking about it is challenging and although I love to do it a picture is worth…etc. so I demonstrate at the beginning of class, modeling my approach to show my students how to begin their drawing.  And then they settle to the task themselves and the group becomes quiet and I wander around and look over their shoulders and have little conflabs with each of them, a correction or adjustment here or there, a further explanation, and always a kind of parsing of the particulars of the subject they are drawing.  

On Tuesday and Wednesday the first drawings were an exercise in isolating what in reality is never isolated. These cast shadows lacked their sculptural counterpart, they were just the memory of light, the mark in space made by the thing that nearby was occupying space.  They were beautiful but at first glance they lacked Peter Pan, who had, perhaps, just flown out the window to be absorbed by the source of light.