Monday, July 4, 2011

Edge Lighting

It's the 4th of July weekend, and unfortunately I'm living in a pest house.  My wife and I both have bad summer colds, and since she coughs at night I spent last night in the spare bedroom.  A recent (2008) copy of Anne of Green Gables was on the bed (my daughter, who is on vacation must be rereading it), and the cover illustration caught my eye. 

It was a wonderful painting by Ben Stahl, and is a wonderful example of "edge lighting", or lighting a subject from over the shoulder of the subject.  As you can see it creates a highlighted edge (from above left) that accents the softer reflected light.  The reflected light comes from the opposite direction (below right).

I'm going to avoid commenting on the beautiful sense of color, so as to follow the edge (and get back to bed).  Edge lighting in portraits is not new, but it is relatively rare.  The most obvious example that came to mind was Vermeer: his painting called The Lacemaker is below.  It is not exactly in the category since the subject is looking down, but the drama is the same.

One of my all time favorite paintings, Woman with a Parasol by Monet also takes on the problem/opportunity of looking toward the light (yes, I know he painted several versions; he's Monet after all). He captures a moment of light better than anyone, and probably didn't give a damn about the theory of light and optics.  As Cezanne said:  "Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye."

More recently, during the hay day of illustration, Norman Rockwell used the edge lighting approach more often than anyone I know of.  He used it in one of his most famous paintings Saying Grace, with the subjects  set in front of a window looking out on a bright and busy city street.  Below is one of several illustrations for The Adventures of huckleberry Finn (1968), that use edge lighting.  (Wonderful composition, no?)

End of art history/opinion...

Illustrating the proposed design of a building is much like painting a portrait.  In most cases choosing lighting that comes from the front, 45 degree from front, or from the near side is preferred because it emphasizes the forms clearly.  Every once in a while more drama and less clarity are called for.  Painters, having more leeway in this regard, have used edge lighting for hundreds of years.  Below is Claude Gellee's Disembarkation of Cleopatra at Tarsus, painted in 1642.  Obviously, looking into the sunset was the driving idea here, and the edge lighting was merely a result, but there it is for whatever reason.

But I'm supposed to be talking about architectural illustration...  Damn that ADD!

Eliel Saarinen, being both an architect and a talented artist, regularly rendered his own designs with edge lighting.  He used it on his most famous project in his native Finland, the Helsinki Railway Station (1910), and architectural fantasy designed in 1915.  Below is another famous project, the Parliament House (1908), which shows how he allowed the edge light to strike elements in the foreground, helping to give depth to what could become a flat and dull shadowed facade.

There are other illustrators that used the technique, including Hugh Ferriss and John Wenrich, but I'm at the end of my Sudafed, so I'll just leave with one of my own examples of edge lighting; a detail of my rendering of the Ellington Building.

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