Complex forms in light

Complex forms in light

This next section of Understanding Loomis will begin to address the essential question of how an artist can create realistic shadows when a subject matter is not a regular geometric shape, for instance such as in the case of a woman’s face.

Loomis begins his answer to this important question with a short word regarding theory.  He starts with the observation that laypeople cannot tell the difference between talent and knowledge.  He means that when most folks perceive a person of skill executing his craft – be it drawing or drywall- the product may seem like the result of an immaterial gift, rather than the exercising of an integrated, practiced knowledge base.  This is a mainstay of fine-art, where the ‘myth of talent’ seeks to delineate a line between craft and art.  The position being held by the talent advocates states that artists are geniuses, and their work is akin to revelation.  These elect few ‘geniuses’  are not craftsmen, but vehicles of expression who’s concepts (opinions and ideas) are purportedly the seat of their greatness.  Loomis being an illustrator reveals this as a myth with the straight-forward observation that talent really is a mis-appellation applied to what really is a practiced craft.  This confusion and elevation of the discipline into the realms of fine-art is done by those who lack knowledge of the pursuit, onto those who have knowledge of that pursuit; that is the ability to draw and paint.

Loomis defends the position that drawing and painting well, is a matter of understanding the terms of how such a skill is done and that there are specific areas of technical knowledge needed in order to manifest the illusion of reality on a 2-d surface.

Now he goes into the nuts-and-bolts of shadows and complex forms.  Loomis begins this section by indicating that when a drawing or painting is being done, and a smooth tone is chosen to be interrupted by the artist, there are only two ways an observer can interpret that change in tone.

  • That the change in tone represents a change in the character of the surface which is trying to be represented (say for instance, a few small rocks on a wide stretch of beach)


  • That the change in tone is a smudge on the surface of the art, and not part of the image which is trying to be represented.

The interpretation of a dark tone as being a change in surface character within the picture, vs it being some sort of surface smudge is exclusively within the domain of the placement of that mark.  A properly placed, grey mid-tone mark, will read as perfect sfumato of light on a woman’s cheek, where a misplacement of that same mark by a matter of degrees will make it now appear as a dirty spot; a mistake where your hand disturbed the charcoal.

This is a very useful distinction to keep in one’s mind when making a picture, in that many artists are compelled to ‘fill-in’ areas with various marks and tones.  The naive illustrator overly relies on hatching and details because he does not know where the exact place surface changes should naturally occur given the object and the light he is attempting to draw.

Unfortunately, many naive approaches in art can be interpreted as elements of style, and therefore also intentional on the part of the artist.  This conclusion is generally false, and such art is really most often the product of the artist trying to ‘fill in’ the work.  People usually have a good enough eye to see that something is wrong in a picture (see earlier posts on intelligent observation), but they lack the knowledge of why.  When this happens to an artist regarding his own work, the common natural response is to fuss over the area, adding random marks and tones in order to address the error in intelligent observation the artist is experiencing.  For instance, Loomis indicates elsewhere that the appearance of a receded or distended jawline in a portrait, which causes the artist to keep refining the contour of the face, is most often nothing wrong with the jaw, but actually the effect of the artist having misplaced his subject’s features, such as a too-low mouth, or too-wide eyes.

Naive art is often given a pass, and even loved by consumers and the audience in some cases.  Whether intense, ‘stylized’, ultra-detailed and highly-rendered art is your cup-of-tea or not does not change the fact that there is a particular place where surface character changes in regard to light, and knowing those particulars is better than not knowing.

Drawing is only difficult to those who don’t know what information to hold onto when representing a subject.  The placement of contours and changes in the nature of surface character are measurements and nothing else.  When one knows how to measure these properly, the matter of placing them is made simple.

Knowledge over talent.  Know how to do it, don’t try to guess because you can’t.

Moving on, Andrew Loomis declares that to find the planes of an object is to watch the angle of the surface as it changes, then record the tone or value caused by the angle.  I think this is most easy to understand when put in the context of drawing a face.  Loomis wants us to recognize that areas of light on form, always fall into a shape.  So do the dark tones and the half tones.  To be able to represent a face in light is to know these shapes, and place them together properly.

Consider this drawing I have done, presented below:

woman contour face loomis

A face is drawn as any other surface by following the angles of the surface and with each change of plane, noting the change of value.  Highlights are found on the highest parts of the form, and nearest point of the surface to the light.  As you can see in the image above, there is no need for complicated and intense detail.  The value of the shadow tones are limited to only 2 in my picture; full black for shadow, medium grey for half tones.  The brightest parts of the face are represented by no pencil work- it is the paper colour.  Squint your eyes at my drawing and you will see a generalization of the values, and recognize that the mid-tone is basically uniform.  With the magic of photoshop, I reduced my image to only 2 tones and the white ground.  You can still read this as an attractive woman’s face.  This is because the placement of the shadow tones is correct .  We read this as a face, and even an attractive face because the marks are in the correct areas.  If they were moved about, the image would become less attractive.

small contour

Here I have taken the shapes of value, and moved them around a bit, then added a red filter to indicate the distortion.  This example shows how the positioning of the value-tones is the essential variable which artists need to get correct.  The actual ‘prettiness’ of the particular eye or nose drawn is not what makes a woman’s face look attractive.  It is the knowledge of how form creates shadow, and the proper measurement of where the artist chooses to place those values.  

distortedsmall contour

You can see in the red version, the masses of tone when slightly moved, also move in our interpretation of them from descriptions of value to random marks.  The tones appear like surface blemishes.  Look for instance in the halftone mark which describes the edge of the woman’s cheek where it meets the muzzle of the face. The correctly placed one looks just like a shadow, the incorrect one is an unreadable mark -a smudge.

adistortedsmall contour

The obvious next question is how does one learn these various shapes, which represent light on form in regards to the multiplicity of facial angle and quality of light?  The answer will be outlined in the next posting, which will go into the principle that light on form is related to the basic, and memorizable way that light falls on the sphere and the cylinder.

We will discuss this next monday.  I hope you join me.


A Specialized Method of using Diagonals

This week’s posting will be a very straight forward one.  Andrew Loomis’ third example in this section of Successful Drawing shows how the artist can use diagonals to create a checkerboard pattern in perspective.  This is useful for drawing repeating windows of uniform size, or bricks on a wall receding into the distance.  The example I will use is of a brick wall.

This is how it is done.

  1. Create the perspectival plane which will be the brick wall.  Locate the Vanishing Point. Use any angle that you wish.1
  2. Divide the near vertical edge of the wall into equal separations.  The size you choose will represent how tall each brick will be.2
  3. Cast lines to the V.P. from the points indicated by the vertical spacing you created with the brick heights in step 2.  We shall call these lines the Brick Height Lines.3
  4. Here is where the diagonal comes in.  Cast a diagonal line from corner to corner on the face of the wall you are drawing.  The diagonal can go up or down. 4
  5. Where the diagonal (blue line in this example) crosses each of the multiple Brick Height Lines, draw a 90 degree vertical from the bottom of the wall to its top.5
  6. Repeat this at each crossing point, and the wall plane will be divided perfectly in perspective.6
  7. Erase the guide lines to reveal the wall.7


This method can be used for drawing multiple series of drawers, such as in a morgue or a bank vault, architectural or vehicular designs, it can be used as a grid for aiding the placement lettering or imagery on signage, or as a way of drawing bricks and checkers.

The diagonal is the key to being able to measure the depth of the sections.  Next week, I will explain how the diagonal can help in measuring, and thus correctly drawing a repeating panel section in perspective.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you next posting.





Chapter, the first

Successful Drawing

A short note about philosophy

Throughout these reviews, I will refer to a concept is called “a sense of life”.  The words ‘sense of life’ stand for a suite of ideas representing a person’s outlook on existence and the forces which move the world.  It is more than a point of view though, in that a sense of life unconsciously underscores and shapes the volitional essence of every choice and action one takes -in or witnesses.

A sense of life defines not only a person’s belief system, but also his character.

The reason I have started with a definition of the concept sense of life, is that Andrew Loomis was philosophical.  He recognized that ideas matter and that knowledge matters.  He believed in truth, and the power of man’s mind to discover that truth.  Through his constant observation of reality, and because of his desire to define a method of representing that reality, Andrew Loomis naturally developed a set of philosophical and technical guidelines for illustrators to follow.

In the following sections, you will find my notes and elaborations which were composed after I had generally read Successful Drawing, and had gone back to begin actively studying  the book as an instructional manual.  The dates for these notes are January 5th and 6th of 2016.

The Fundamentals of Successful Drawing

pages 11-13

The first pages of every Andrew Loomis book begin by outlining the basic principles which he keeps regarding art and drawing in particular.  Loomis’ sense of life is positive; that the world is beautiful and that humans are good.  In this, he is taking part in the conception of art from the Classical period.

Successful Drawing especially emphasizes Loomis’ conception of a ‘benevolent universe’, i.e. that there is no pernicious force at work which seeks to keep man down.   Loomis believes that answers to problems do exist, and that they are ready to be found.  Furthermore, he maintains that their discovery is a matter of careful study and a result of one’s adherence to reality.

The first paragraphs outline how successful drawing is a result of true analysis of the world, that is, what is real.  One achieves this through perception.  To elaborate, the concept which he is establishing shows that an artist can not represent reality if they do not know it, or do not seek to observe it.  This stance puts Andrew Loomis firmly in the category of a representational artist, and eschews any discussion of non-representation in art.

He takes for granted that what an artist is doing is trying to represent what is real.  Art must be recognizable so that another viewer can observe and read the work. He also believes that an artist’s job is not to merely record or report on reality, as per a journalist or a scientist.  He sees the choice of what is represented as indivisible with the nature of the artwork, as well as with the nature of the artist.

It is important to recognize that Loomis implicitly believes that representational art is not to be interpreted as reality.  Instead, representational art is a declaration of choice; the choosing to show a representation of one momenatry aspect of reality.  It is a representation of the world as through the lens of the artist’s eyes, so that the viewer may see in proxy. Viewers of art are able to glimpse through their contemplation of a work the artist’s sense of life . Observation and recording of reality is essential, but artistic vision is what makes the product of one’s work into art, rather than journalism.

Thus, his formula is that true observation coupled with an positive artistic sense of life is what constitutes worthwhile art.