Painting Darks That Are Too Dark to See

Nicole at Mille Fleurs 3, acrylic painting on canvas, 48 x 30, 2010. In the Afternoon Light, acrylic painting on canvas, 48 x 30, 2011.
Nicole at Mille Fleurs 3, acrylic painting on canvas,
48 x 30, 2010.
In the Afternoon Light, acrylic painting on canvas,
48 x 30, 2011.

Contrast is the difference between light and dark values. The human eye is able to see clearly across a contrast ratio of about 15,000 to 1 (the brightest area 15,000 times brighter than the darkest area). Paintings, by contrast, have a maximum contrast ratio said to be at most 100 to 1.

This presents a problem for painters—how to achieve the impression of natural contrasts without being able to show them directly. This problem is most urgent for painters who depict scenes lit by direct sunlight, where the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows share a composition. There is no perfect solution to this problem, but painters who invest in contrast expend a great deal of thought and effort in understanding visual cues that are interpreted unconsciously as contrast.

Victoria Selbach, a New York painter, makes lush paintings of nudes lit by sunlight. To present convincing contrasts in her acrylic paintings, she uses two related painting techniques.

In Nicole at Mille Fleurs 3, most of the figure is in direct sunlight. Selbach paints a full range of values in the lit areas, and lets the cast shadows drop to black. The eye would naturally be able to see detail in the cast shadows, but by painting them black, Victoria subliminally tells the brain, "this region is too dark to see." The brain then identifies these shadows as about 15,000 times darker than the highlights, heightening the implied contrast with the lit areas, which are nowhere near 15,000 times brighter than the blacks.

In her painting In the Afternoon Light, Ms. Selbach uses her other contrast-enhancing technique. Most of the figure is in shadow. So if Selbach had followed her "shadows = black" rule, the composition wouldn't have worked. Instead, she renders a large range of values in the shadows, and lets the lights go to white. Again, she gives the brain a strong cue for a full 15,000 to 1 contrast ratio, helping to work around the contrast limits of acrylic paint.

Notice that in the first painting, the technique gives a sense of warm, rich light and burnt shadow. In the second painting, there is a sense of cool, glowing shadows and diffuse, washing fields of light.

Selbach focuses on techniques for conveying extremely high contrast, because sunlight and shadows shown in natural light are her inspirations. She has mastered the contrast techniques described here, but many others exist. The key to discovering your personal preferences is to think about how you see what you see. Feel free to share your own tips and observations in the comments.



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Daniel Maidman

About Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman was born in Toronto, Canada. He was raised in Toronto, Jerusalem, Washington, and Chicago.

Since attending college in North Carolina and Texas, Daniel Maidman has lived in Los Angeles and New York City. In Los Angeles, he set himself on a program to learn how to draw and paint the human figure. He attended life drawing workshops 2-3 times a week for eight years. As well, he spent two years working on an anatomical atlas based on human cadaver dissections in which he participated at Santa Monica College, under the guidance of Dr. Margarita Dell. Illustrations from his atlas are currently in use in the United States Army’s forensic field manual.

Since moving to New York, Daniel Maidman has sped up his painting schedule, while continuing to maintain his drawing skills through life drawing workshops at Spring Street Studio. Although he remains primarily self-taught, he has learned a good deal about color from conversations with Adam Miller.

Daniel Maidman’s other interests include filmmaking and writing.



One thought on “Painting Darks That Are Too Dark to See

  1. Thank you Daniel.
    Interesting insight and perfect timing as I have been thinking a lot about those darkest areas lately.
    The last two pieces I completed are my darkest yet and it’s a bit wild walking that line where the eye can barely discern the cast changes that layer and detail a world within the darks.
    I have been dragging my easel outside in direct sunlight to complete the darkest areas so I can paint the detail within the darks with ‘full disclosure’. I find even with good studio light there is a moment of harsh reality when strong daylight exposes the subtleties of pigment that layer to define the detail within the darkest areas of the painting. It’s an attempt to get it right under the strongest possible light with the intention that it will then mellow to perfection in a softer lit environment.
    Now that the new pieces are finished I’m enjoying how different room lighting effects the contrast impact and trying to learn something from that.
    Just as raising the dimmer switch in a dark room reveals more of what is present, raising the light on the painting reveals subtle color changes that the eye in soft light blends, altering the balance of information and shifting the overall impact of the contrast.
    So on one end we look, we squint, we walk through life trying to see what is truly there and in the end the painting sits again dancing in the changing light.
    What fun the challenge that comes between…how to best capture it.