Lighting the Way

"New Opportunity" by Nancy Crookston, 18 x 24

“New Opportunity” by Nancy Crookston, 18 x 24

I feel very privileged to have been invited to share some of my thoughts on the artist’s life with such an incredibly accomplished group. I attended the OPA National show in Evergreen, Colorado, in June and was treated to one exceptional image after another. You guys are good!

Twelve years ago, I had to choose whether to make my living as a writer focusing on art, or put in my 10,000 hours to become a professional artist. I went with the writing and founded my communications business because I had already put in decades to hone those skills. I missed making art, but the business took all my time and energy until last year when I promised myself another year would not go by without a brush in my hand. I have a long way to go to measure up to the craftsmanship I see exhibited by OPA members year after year, but I find I am living a life in art and it’s exactly where I want to be.

As an arts writer with an academic and experiential background in art history, I learn something from every interview, every research project, and I am constantly studying, observing, and refining my knowledge. I know you are too. Here is what I believe: Our imaginations are shaped by our lives’ events and our art squeezes through those vast or narrow halls to bloom in the sunlight. So it has always been and shall be forevermore. The more we experience and imagine, the more vision we bring to our art. The more we develop our skills, the closer we come to truly expressing our visions.

In this post, I want to talk specifically about the importance of light and shadow in our art and to hear from you about how they function in your own work. Light and shadow are dependent upon one another—they are two sides of the same coin and one cannot reach its full potential without the other. There is no depth, no perspective, no dimensionality, no translation of subject matter without both light and shadow.

Shadow, or darks, are the alter ego of light. Darks define and shape, highlight, and push lighter subject matter into being. These two comrades echo one another to reveal subtleties and nuances that would otherwise not be possible. Shadow and darkness form the essential support system for light and allow our viewers to more deeply understand and access our subject matter. As author Terry Tempest Williams once remarked, “A shadow is never created in darkness. It is born of light.” I find this statement a wonderful metaphor for how artists can look at light and shadow in their work.

"Moonstruck Dinghy" by Marc Hanson, 20 x 24

“Moonstruck Dinghy” by Marc Hanson, 20 x 24

Think about what it’s like to be out and about painting on a summer’s night. The stars are brightest against that dark, velvety sky. Our senses are on high alert—we smell the earth releasing moisture into the air as temperatures drop, we enjoy a sense of heightened possibility, and shapes that look ordinary in daylight morph into mysterious, unfamiliar forms. In the studio, a scene that might otherwise be mundane becomes striking and dramatic when accentuated by deep shadow.

But our shadows must be more than just dark, negative spaces on the canvas. They must have a strong character of their own. We are called upon to look closely, deeply into every dark region of the scene before us—to seek out their rich subtlety and translate that to our canvases. Have you ever asked yourself why the most exciting things in life can be those invisible forces that we sense but do not see clearly? It’s because those areas, without rigid boundaries, allow for possibility, for things that go “bump” in the night. They enhance a painting’s narrative quality.

Pablo Casals, the cellist, once remarked that in music the notes not played are as important as the ones that are played. These are the grace notes, the silent beats of space between audible tones of sound. In art, shadow is the grace note, the essential, less prominent element that allows the attention-grabbing central subject matter to take the spotlight. It frames, supports, and defines the star performer.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with how light and shadow work for you. Have you experimented with lighting to create different moods or atmosphere in a work? Have you painted a scene where shadows dominate—or do you think that’s possible? Is there a point in a painting where you look closely at your shadows to see if they are playing their strongest support role? Do they add to your paintings’ narrative quality? Let’s shed some light on the subject!

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  • wanda

    Oh to paint my soul the way you articulate yours! beautiful inspiring message, thanks w

  • Margaret Pevec

    I love the examples of paintings using light and dark. They and your words paint a picture of the subtleties of the artist’s craft. I’m not a painter, but I understand now how the contrast with the dark makes the light more prominent, as so beautifully evoked in the Moonstruck Dinghy.

  • Ghislaine

    I am also a visual artist. I saw your painting ” Lighting the way” at the Autry Museum. To me it was number one. I took a photo of it and I kept it in the file of beautiful paintings by my friends. Periodically I look at it and I am amazed.

    • Ghislaine

      Oops, I meant ” New Opportunity”

      • Rosemary Carstens

        Ghistaine: “New Opportunities” is not by me, it’s by Nancy Crookston. You can see more of her wonderful work at

  • Ghislaine

    Now that I am passed the painting of Carstens I can comment on your wonderful article. As an artist I feel the shadows are the most difficult to express with beauty. They need to be transparent, clear and have subtleties of color. This is the area of the painting that scares me the most. If I loose the transpenrancy it will not come back. What a wonderful quote from Pablo Casal !

  • Joanne Corbaley

    Wonderful discussion. It took me a very long time to even begin to understand the importance of the ‘unimportant’ parts of a scene; wish I’d had this to read in those early days… but, in retrospect, maybe I’m just now ready for it.

  • Amanda Morris Johnson

    I loved this post, as this year I too turned from a writing and communications career of decades to working with oil pastels most of the year as I recover from brain surgery that was done last February. If anything I find that rather than “lighting the way,” I have been “darkening the way,” making my illustrative style deeper with longer shadows and willingness to play in the darkness of imagery as much as light. Removing a brain tumor seems to have unblocked my urge to be perfect or else and so I get to play so much more than I have since childhood with contrast of light and shadow and colors. There is much happening in the dark spaces on a piece of art. It isn’t a blank black space necessarily, but gradations that challenge the eye to revel in them.

  • rosemarycarstens

    Thanks everyone for your comments–keep ’em coming! I’d like to hear more about other artists’ experiences with portraying light and shadow, what works best for you?

  • Gail Storey

    Your post is an education in itself about how to look at light and shadow in a painting. Like Keats’s “negative capability” in literature, darkness deepens as profoundly as light illuminates. I’m also fascinated by your account of how you came to write about art–would like to hear, perhaps in another post, of what your experience is of painting again.

  • lesa Filius

    Bravo ! Well said Rosemary .This will help many painters along the way .Please keep them coming .

  • Julia

    What a gorgeous post! I use that word because it too paints a picture of a picture. I’m a pastelist and struggle with shadows especially – don’t know why, maybe a mental block – but this article certainly gives me a new way to look at them. Loved the Casals quote. I once had a ballet teacher who said the steps between the steps were just as important. Wonderful article – will bookmark. Carstens knows her stuff.

  • Bonnie Gangelhoff

    Wonderful post! After looking at thousands of paintings, I so appreciate the grace notes. They add the mystery. Rosemary…keep up the great work. I hope to see more of your blogs here.

  • Martin Wessler

    Aloha from Hawaii Rosemary,

    I enjoyed your blog very much. It seemed very timely for me. Living in sunny Hawaii we artists believe it is all about the light. But that can be limiting. I am on a personal mission to discover for myself new ways to see and think about what and how I paint light and shadow compositions. I have been pushing the extremes. Why not a composition of 80-90% shadow? or the opposite? How about changing my palette to evoke different moods for different subjects? After reading the quote in your piece that the shadows rely on light for their existence, I am wondering about a composition of all shadow?


    Martin Wessler

    • rosemarycarstens

      This is what I love to hear, Martin! Sometimes the “rules” have to also be jumping off places, places to soar beyond rather than boundaries. Glad to hear you are out there in aloha land experimenting, seeing what the world of paint has to offer.

  • rosemarycarstens

    What fun this week has been! A special thanks to all of you who made the extra effort to leave a comment so I could see if the topic resonated with you. I also heard from many directly through email and some artists felt moved to take a fresh look at light and shadow in their own work. I plan to see some of you at the upcoming OPA Western Regionals show in Denver–it should be outstanding! I’ve been invited back to guest blog in the future, so look forward to “chatting” again–

  • geoffrey

    Well said, Rosemary-I am a sculptor but I still work on dark and light, it is important for all of us…can’t wait for the next entry.

  • Jerrie Hurd

    Thought I’d already commented on this one. I light the comments on shadow. We don’t give shadow enough thought.

  • Leah Bradley

    Thanks for this lovely article, Rosemary. I am especially glad to hear these two quotes form Terry Tempest Williams and Pablo Casals — they were the perfect tie-in to what you were expressing about shadow in painting.

  • I just read your lovely article Rosemary, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. As a landscape painter, the play of light and shadow is almost everything in my work. A scene at high noon loses all of it’s mystery – I wait for the long shadows of evening or morning to do my best work, because that’s when the world really comes to life. It’s like that with life too, isn’t it? We really learn how to sparkle and shine after we’ve come through some of our darker moments, which teach us the beauty of the better days by contrast. As you pointed out, the more we experience, the more depth we can bring to our art.

  • Nancy Boren

    Your article really hit home with me also since lately, figure painting with a dark background has been on my mind. You gave me some excellent things to think about, thank you! I also want to try painting more black objects, which can be like painting a lit negative space. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on painting again soon.

  • Mary Phillips

    Dear Rosemary Carstens,

    I found your thoughts about light and shadow worthy of reflection. It occurs to me that light always acts to dissipate darkness, while darkness exists to encroach upon light. This seems to me to be true not just in painting, but in all things natural and spiritual.

    Respectfully, Mary Phillips, OPA member

  • Randie Burrell

    My dear friend Rosemary –
    Your words are like a paint brush. You are an artist in every sense. Beautiful thoughts about appreciating the subtle nuances of light and shadow. When I analyze really great paintings, I always look to see how reflected light is rendered.
    Thank you.