Photography and Drawing: Shadows, Values, and Light

Here is something I never thought I would say, “I can draw!” You see, I had no idea I could draw. In eighth grade, I took a five-week summer art class at my junior high school, along with two friends, both of whom were talented. In class, we painted, made pottery, drew, sculpted, and did paper mâché. My paintings were at kindergarten level. My pottery creation, a genie bottle, was misshapen, looking as if it were melting like Salvador Dali had done something untoward to it. My sculpture was coaxed out of a chunk of plaster of Paris and was more chipped and scraped block than sculpture. I presented it as an abstract man, a dalliance in cubism. My mother displayed these works proudly in the living room. She refused to get rid of them. This background is necessary because it will help explain my shock when I managed to draw something others could accept as art without my claiming it to be an homage to post-modernist abstract expressionism. 

My discovery sits at the confluence of a series of coincidences. First, a little more than a year and a half ago, during a darkroom class, a classmate looking at my negatives observed, “You are really into still life!” I had owned my 7000i for four months, and the shots she was looking at were taken so that I would have film to develop and print for class. No artistry was intended. 

Next, I bought a Yashica Mat 124 in February because my fascination with still life photography had grown. My love of still life, especially impressionist works, goes back many years, so nothing new there. Looking for inspiration and guidance with photography still life, I searched for books, but the photography books I found focused on product and food shots, not art. Eventually, I found a good ebook, Still Life Photography by Kevin Best, which helped explain composition, props, and studio lighting. However, I still had the problem of figuring out how to get backgrounds that emulated those in classic still life paintings. No photography book discussed this.  

The third coincidence came in the form of The Art of Still Life by Todd Casey. That book is excellent at explaining the finer points of backgrounds in still life paintings. After reading through it, I started looking at background painting tutorials on YouTube. Perusing painting videos, one encounters drawing videos as well. Now, about this time (early July), I was clearing out stuff that had accumulated in my office and came across a drawing book I bought at least 20 years ago (coincidence #4) and never used. Having watched YouTube videos and read the still life books, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try my hand at drawing at least once before donating the book. Grabbing a pencil, I tried the first lesson, drawing a cube with shadows and shading, then a sphere with the same treatment. To my surprise, they looked very much like the book. Encouraged, I tried progressively harder subjects. Nothing spectacular, but far, far better than my eighth-grade self ever managed—BY A LOT.  

Delving deeper into drawing, I read more and more about shadows, shading, and light. Then one day, it hit me, everything I was reading applied equally well to photography and painting! I’m sure that is obvious to many reading this, but until that moment, it hadn’t been to me. 

Shadows with color

I started out taking pictures of flowers, so I paid little attention to shadows and shading. Drawing books speak of “value,” which strikes me as another way of talking about shadows in black and white photography. The overall effect was that I became much more aware of light play and shadows when analyzing scenes to photograph. Also, looking back at my favorite still-life photos, all focused on shadows and light. Apparently, I was naturally inclined to look for these gradients. Yet, I had no awareness of what I was trying to capture or express. The painting and drawing books now provide context for my inclination.  

I have painted a few backgrounds following along with YouTube tutorials. They are crude, but now I see where I have to go. I am learning to see color in shadows and how light and shadows create depth and presence in drawings, paintings, and photographs. Since discovering I could put a few lines together on a sketch pad that look presentable, my photography activity has slowed, in terms of shots, but sped up in terms of composition and conceptualization. Soon, my imaginings will be captured on film and paper, and perhaps eventually on canvas. I’m not in a hurry. The pace I’m working at feels right. 

Somehow, over the decades, the art classes sunk in—I can draw well enough to be pleased with the results and my photographs are improving nicely. My mother displayed my eighth grade “art” in the way that mothers lovingly do.  I wish she could see my new stuff.

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