Shadows don’t play a very large part in quilted art.
In looking over SAQA’s Portfolio 14 (a fairly representational collection of quilted art work by professional artists), I find little in the way of shadows. Value ranges and darks/whites used to establish foreground/background are everywhere, but shadows as an important part of the conception, even when the SAQA work is representational in nature, don’t much appear. A 2003 quilted piece that I did, which shows a leafless tree shadow on bricks, might provide personal insights, but it is more pattern than shadow.
I am interested in the question of shadow because I have been adding oil painting to my repertoire of art media. Oil painting, at least since the Renaissance and Rembrandt, has claimed shadows as an important piece of technique and meaning. And prints also have claims on shadows, as in this Edward Hopper work.
I, on the other hand, haven’t paid much attention to shadows. The twentieth century’s fluorescent tube lighting erases a lot of shadows that candles and torches and even incandescent lights used to provide. Street lights and security lights keep cities safe, but also less full of mystery.
I have personal excuses, too, for being shadow-challenged: I live in the Pacific Northwest, where clouds diffuse the light and shadows are wimpy; I use a digital camera for reference work, and color digital photos tend to lighten up shadows. (Or maybe it’s just that my digital photos go for information rather than drama.)
And then, there’s my temperament. I am by nature a late sleeper, so I miss the drama of early morning shadows except when forced by circumstance (i.e. a workshop on landscape painting or catching an early flight) to see them. And I tend to go brain dead after 4 PM, so remembering that I want the long evening shadow experience is difficult for me.
But perhaps more important than any of these excuses is that much of my informal training and attraction in art has been in modern and contemporary modes of visualization where shadows (as differentiated from “value”) are of little importance or interest: abstract paintings tend to focus on the canvas-qua-canvas, not as a “window” to the external world. Quilt art, probably because of the traditions out of which it has been built as well as its modern forebearers, tends to also focus on the (textured) surface. Even quilting stitches tend to evoke line and texture rather than as building shadow.
Notan which “focuses on the interaction between positive and negative space” has had a resurgence of interest among quilters in the last 10 or 15 years, but it is based on stark values, contour, and silhouette rather than shadow.* While the Notan principle that “all elements of a work must be given equal consideration” is a truism, even in landscape and portraiture, this principle when it is added to the concepts of Notan tends to flatten the surface, because proportion and perspective can be lost in the emphasis on the interchangeability of background and foreground.
from Madison Middle School, Larry Prescott, teacher, as found in Princeton On-line
Ideas about shadows in western European history are ubiquitous. In an interview in Cabinet magazine, Victor Stoichita, the author of a Short History of Shadow, talks about two ancient ideas of shadows: one is what he terms the “sadistic concept” of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Plato postulates that men (sic) are chained by the neck so they can see only the play of shadows on the back walls of the cave in which they are trapped. They never see reality nor have “true” knowledge, and if they did, they would be blinded, so willy-nilly, trapped, they know only shadows. Shadow in this sense is definitively negative. The Greeks also envisioned men’s souls as shadows, so Hades is filled with “shades” — darkness with no substance. But Pliny, as Stoichita tells us, recounts a whole other vision of shadow: the myth of the woman who traces the contours of her lover’s shadow on the wall and thus invents painting. A very positive view.**
Joseph Wright, The Corinthian Maid, 1782 – ’84, The National Gallery of Art , Paul Mellon Collection
Piaget, that studier of child development, found that children don’t recognize shadow as a function of an external process, that is, caused by light and its direction, until they are 8 or so. Prior to that they imagine their shadow to both emanating from inside themselves and/or something requisitioned from other shadows. Remember the poem, “I had a little shadow that went in and out with me…”?
And a gothic horror conceit, the selling of one’s shadow to the devil and then losing one’s identity and desperately needing to have it returned (Stealing the Soul of Peter Schlemihl, by Adelbert Von Chamisso, 1814) has its rerun in Peter Pan, who not only lost his shadow but can’t bear to grow up. Somehow the recognition that one’s shadow is external and not a function of one’s own identity might connected to growth and maturation.
A sobering thought, particularly when attached to the lack of shadow in contemporary painting. Could it be that a certain narcissistic arrested sense of development is attached to our use of value without an external light source?
On the other hand, and as a forerunner to David Hockney et al, Otto Neurath (born 1882), in an article by George Pendle in Cabinet Magazine, is quoted as saying “Orthodox perspective [of which shadowing is an important element] is anti-symbolic and puts the onlooker into a privileged position….I wanted to be free to look from where ever I chose.” Neurath was the primary deviser of the silhouette-codes that tell us that deer are crossing the highway, that June probably should use the little room with the skirted figure on the door, and that the larger the icon on the graph, the larger the number it represents (production of chickens being the example used).
As Pendle puts it, “It was as if a long-forgotten part of the human brain had suddenly been switched on. Within months of Neurath’s first isotype exhibition, the world was awakened to the power of visuals to transfer information. Newspapers across the globe were soon inventing isotypes of their own and beginning to illustrate their pages with them. Like stones buffeted and rounded in the sea, Neurath’s original isotypes were becoming ever simpler, and thus ever more recognizable. Indeed, the isotypes that we see today on lavatory doors are so uncomplicated in their depiction of “male” and “female” that they seem just one step removed from being totally abstract.”
Someone has postulated that growing up requires an abstracting ability, such as is entailed in understanding shadow as caused from without: abstraction has power to see into the reality beyond egocentrism. And what Pendle calls “isotypes” — silhouetted icons, are an extension of understanding our shadows as external to ourselves. But to come full circle —
Kara Walker’s iconographic silhouettes are unshadowed except by the shadows in our souls, the stains that slavery and our inhuman pasts have caused.
Kara Walker, Endless Conundrum: An African Anonymous Adventurer, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
So there you are: shadows as symbolic of our ignorance, shadows as the inspiration for the creation of the art of painting, shadows as holding our souls and as being vital to our mature identity, and shadows, turned to isotypes, as ways to inform us that rock slides are prevalent, that we can walk across the street in relative safety, and that horrific human activities can be depicted as flat shadows, silhouettes and still be full of nuance.
Some cheerful thoughts occur to me as I explore shadow and its absence in much of contemporary art: one thought is that shadows can be evoked that are separated from our experience of the original shape: shadows from trash, for example, or shadows cast by tiny figures set into flood lights that are projected onto a white wall, enlarging the original silhouettes beyond recognition.
Another cheerful thought is that our extensive exposure to non-shadowed photos and designs and art works makes the shaded, shadowed forms far more expressive and unique than they might have been in the 19th century. This really cheers me up because I’m hoping one of my next leaps forward will be in working the shadows in my own art.
This scene is totally in shadow except the ground and, I would argue, the shadow itself.
** Cabinet is worth exploring, even online. Each issue has a specific named theme, with essays on a variety of art topics such as weather, flight, property, average, sea, insecurity, fruits, and, obviously, shadows.. The essays are not, generally speaking, full of artspeak, but they do have a depth and insight that illuminates our field of endeavor.