Twenty-five people hit the floor in a darkened room. Backlit behind a translucent white screen, a woman sits frozen on a chair. A man in a trenchcoat stands behind her, hands raised as if to strike. No one moves.
In another dimly lit room a spotlight pins a white-faced mime to his shadow on the wall. Twenty people sit on the floor in the dark. They grip charcoal and chalk, kneel before large sheets of paper and begin to draw.
This is life drawing reinvented.
It’s the 11th edition of The Drawing Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre, and London Drawing have taken over three rooms to set poses that suggest surreal fairy tales and narratives loosely inspired by a forthcoming theatrical production. It’s an all-day Saturday workshop. Each pose is designed to surprise, challenge and inspire. It’s part of London Drawing’s compelling vision.
This is no place for the shadow averse.
The most dramatic feature of today’s workshop is the unignorable contrast between light and dark. Backlighting makes blank die-cuts of the woman and the man — think shadow puppets and the animated silhouette films of Lotte Reiniger – and in the glare of the Batman-style spotlight, the mime and his shadow are as one. Trying to draw him without his dark twin is like trying to prise a daemon away from a character in a Phillip Pullman novel. It simply isn’t done.
Light — indiscriminate, utterly democratic — makes doppelgangers for us all.
So what is it about shadows?
For one thing, shadows reinforce the point that we’re here. “Cast shadows,” says Charles Williams, curator of the New English Art Club Drawing School, “are the best indicators of a body’s position in space.” In his book, Basic Drawing – How to Draw What You See, Charles relates a telling incident about the artist Paula Rego. She had asked her husband, another well-known artist called Victor Willing, “how she could make her figures look more like they were standing on the ground. Expecting a complex answer to do with anatomy and perspective, she was surprised to hear him tell her just to stick in a cast shadow.”
Shadow husbandry goes a long way back in the history of art, but it wasn’t always the fashion.
In their book The Artist’s Eyes – Vision and the History of Art, Michael Marmor and James Ravin point out that ancient Romans were careful to paint their shadows in. By the Middle Ages, however, shadows — along with linear perspective — had fallen out of favour. But they returned “with a vengeance” during the Renaissance.
Witness this detail from The Annunciation, a triptych attributed to the Master of Flémalle, Robert Campin. Painted in the early 15th century, the panel features scrupulous attention to shadow detail, “often showing double or triple shadows” from multiple sources of light.
But the master of complex lighting in a painted scene is Johannes Vermeer.
In Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, the artist manages a “hundredfold spread of brightness”, from the sunlit window and the washed-out detail of the lady’s blouse, to the velvet darks of foreground and background and the tablecloth draped to the floor. It’s a convincing representation of lighting in the real world. We could go on looking forever.
As Marmor and Ravin put it, “the power of edges, contrast and brightness — the artist’s tools of the trade — is evident in art from cave paintings to modern times.”
The contemporary painter Bridget Riley, for example, recognized the influence of contrast in human perception in the 1960s. Her work wasn’t about optical experimentation, but about binary, either-or relationships between principles such as stability and instability, and certainty and uncertainty.
Riley’s exploration of contrast, and its effect on the way we register form and motion, led to a full decade of work in black and white.
Which brings us neatly back to the drawing workshop, where a single brilliant lamp in a darkened room is pushing the tonal range to extremes. The backlit man and woman have changed props and positions. The trenchcoat and threatening hands are gone, and the man is pouring tea. Give it another hour and he’ll be down on one knee, holding her hand.
Marmor and Ravin say we’re hard-wired to register comparisons — relationships — rather than absolutes.
Ultimately, how we see isn’t so much about resolution as it is about the shape of things and the contrasts between them. In other words, it’s differentness that makes the difference.
Or as John Ruskin wrote in 1857 in The Elements of Drawing:
“Of course the character of everything is best manifested by Contrast. Rest can only be enjoyed after labour; sound to be heard clearly, must rise out of silence; light is exhibited by darkness, darkness by light; and so on in all things.”
This article by Cynthia Barlow Marrs SGFA is an edited version of the original story published in Glow Magazine, an online arts and culture journal, and is reproduced by kind permission. http://www.glowmagazine.me/london-drawing-presents-the-drawing-theatre-shadow-casting
Profile of the author
Cynthia Barlow Marrs SGFA draws and paints and writes about artists from her home-based studio in Windsor. Please visit her website at www.cbarlowmarrs.com Cynthia’s drawing Shadow Play, created during the December 4th 2010 Drawing Theatre workshop, is now the cover of a poetry collection, Notes Relating to An Idea of Blue, by poet, editor and broadcaster David H W Grubb (pub. Shearsman).
London Drawing is a collaboration of professional artists, tutors and performers led by Anne Noble-Partridge and David Price. The Drawing Theatre is a spectacular fusion of theatre and drawing in a creative workshop that combines performance, movement, light and sound. For more information on London Drawing visit their web site at www.londondrawing.com
Basic Drawing – How to Draw What You See by Charles Williams NEAC RWS is published by Robert Hale (London). Charles’ next book, Basic Watercolour — How to Paint What You See, is scheduled for publication in 2014. http://www.halebooks.com
The Artist’s Eyes – Vision and the History of Art by Michael F Marmor and James G Ravin is published by Abrams (New York). The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin is published by Dover Publications.