Artists often focus on the idea that light only reads as light if a certain amount of contrast is achieved. That is true; in any given environment, the contrast has to be just right in order to convey the light intensity of the situation. I used to think this is the most important element which makes the difference between something looking lit and not. Many of my early critiques were on the fact I should increase contrast in order to create an intense light, and I am sure this happens to a lot of others too.
Researching a myriad of styles made me realize there’s something even more important than what the values of light and shadow are. It’s the idea I like to call The Cut, the line where the light and shadow transition. The mastery of The Cut is so intricate, I believe every professional artist’s style is defined by how they portray it.
Throughout this blog post, I’ve uploaded styles which have a variety of value contrasts between light and shadow. What do all of these pictures have in common, however? Look at how decisive the transitions are. Look at how logical the transitions are. Look at how appealing the transitions are.
Every artist would have been told to paint spheres. The biggest lesson of the exercise isn’t to replicate the values perfectly. It’s obvious every artwork will have their own lighting situations so copying the values, while useful to train observational sense, isn’t a necessarily game-breaking revelation. The biggest lesson is also not on how smooth you can render it. While spheres have infinite faces, it is a common mistake to over-render. Besides, every artist has their own take on how they would move the brush, as long as it ultimately looks like a proper sphere.
The sphere is like a trick question, a riddle if you will. Our preconceived idea of a rounded shape is that because of infinite faces, there are no sharp transitions. This happens with a lot of apple paintings too, another common exercise. The real lesson is to understand that despite having a rounded surface, light will always be binary; there will be areas where an object is lit, and there will be areas where it isn’t. This is “The Cut”.
If you can understand where the cut should be, it doesn’t matter as much as what the colours/values of light and shadow are. The above picture is a prime example of a style which breaks the convention of what realistic light and shadow should be, but note that The Cut is perfectly placed.
This type of thing is very common with more stylized work like cartoons and Anime. Due to having to streamline production, it is highly beneficial to hardline The Cut rather than have intricate brushstrokes. It’s impossible to replicate arm movement between different artists!
I write this post with plenty of experience on what not to do. I often try very hard to break conventions in order to experiment possibilities of art. No matter what I do, The Cut is the one thing which must always exist or else the picture does not look lit. It must also be drawn correctly; inconsistency in where lights and shadows are can retract any feeling of logical lighting.