Not long ago I was on a bench in Washington Square Park people watching. It is one of the better places in New York City to see the entire spectrum of humanity mingling on the urban stage. The sun was low in the west, and streamed into the square between the buildings on the west side of the park. This created a tight “spotlight”, making the area beneath the Garibaldi monument something of a stage.
The effect of “spotlights” is dramatic. It takes the scruffy street musician, and makes him into an event. While an urban “spotlight” such as that shown above is created when buildings block the sun, the same effect can be created by clouds on a grander scale.
The photo above of Providence Town shows a sunset spotlight highlighting the beach front. It is subtle, but charming. The unlit buildings to the left and right frame the view. Note that the edges of this “spotlight” are soft, whereas the spotlights at Washington Square were relatively sharp.
This computer tablet sketch uses the same effect to emphasize the part of the town with the church steeple.
The same effect is illustrated in Berthing Boats in a Dutch Harbor by Andreas Achenbach, painted in 1877.
Newburyport Meadows by Martin Johnson Heade shows the source of the spotlights that are playing across the meadows.
The Cactus Friend by Carl Spitzweg suggests how dramatic the spotlight effect can be, even when used in the simplest sketch.
This illustration (Babe’s Greatest Moment by Douglas Crockwell), may not seem to have anything to do with architectural illustration, but it is a blueprint for drama. Imagine a cluster of buildings lit by the rays of a sunset cutting in beneath the grey blanket of a thunder storm.
One occasion an illustrator can use a large fuzzy spotlight is in highlighting a specific part of an urban scene in an aerial perspective. LaCledes Landing could not be seen without the context of downtown St. Louis, but it had to stand out from the rest of the urban fabric. A very soft sky spotlight was used which shows everything in perfect detail, but gives the new development the starring role.
Die Propyläen auf dem Münchner Königsplatz Leo von Klenze is a beautiful example of soft and hard shadows. The soft edged shadow the makes the top of the structure lighter than the bottom is produced by the clouds that are miles away. The sharp shadow to the left of the entry is cast by the portico itself which is perhaps 15 feet away. The edges are soft or hard depending on the sharpness of the thing blocking the sun, and on the distance between the object where the shadow is cast and the object blocking the sun. Since the sun’s disc is not a point, the edge of a shadow becomes fuzzier in proportion to the width of the sun’s disc and the ratio of the distance from the casting object and the sun, and the casting object and the shadow.
Besides the sharpness of the edge of spots, the color of the light and the color of the shadow are important in getting the effect right. Note that the shadow cast by the girl is sharp (because she is close to the shadow), and cool compared to the lighted stone. This is because the major light striking the shadowed area is blue light reflected from the sky. The shaded cracks of the stone below her elbow are a warm brown/grey because they are primarily lit by light reflecting up from the surrounding stone.
Spotlights are an easy (and surprisingly forgiving) tool for producing drama. Try them out whenever a bit of emotion and showmanship is called for.