Painting light or shadows approach

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  08 August 2014
Painting light or shadows approach

Hello everyone,
I've been recently trying to learn how to paint dark skins (african like black skin), and a question arised as I've seen pretty much everyone start from a dark base and build up the light on them. It does make a lot of sense for this case, as pretty much the dark values have low contrast and the bright parts are strong speculars which are the ones shaping the volumes. There are a bunch of more subtle speculars, with a wider range for hues and all kind of colors, but still very subtle, delicate and mostly barely noticeable. So it could be said, you're painting the lights (or the light's spec for that matter).

Caucasian skins on the other hand, are pretty much on a high value range, and the shadows are the ones shaping the volumes, instead of the speculars. So I usually start on a medium to light base, and start shaping everyting with darker (even if saturated mostly) tones and values, and as a last touch but not less important, higher values where they make sense (if there's any strong lights near by, sun, maybe even a rim light?) if the base tone is convering those already. So I could say I'm painting shadows, for the most part at least.

Coming from a drawing background mostly, pencils and white paper, I'm a lot more used to painting shadows. And even if I know the answer to this question could very well be, whatever suits you best and you get the best out of, I also find out that different approaches might suit different situations better and it could save some time of banging my head with the walls and getting better results faster and more intuitevely.

The question is, what do you guys usually prefer and in what situations? Do you consider any of these approaches to be fundamentally "wrong" or maybe innacurate as a model for how light really works? It would be great if a bunch of us shared our experiences and see if we can reach some sort of conclusion on the matter, if you haven't already that is.

I also realize this might be the case of "asking the wrong questions", so if it is, feel free to correct me.

Sorry for the wall of text,
Thanks fo reading.
  08 August 2014
I think the two most important aspects to consider are:

1) What medium are you working with? If like you said, it's pencil and paper, then your approach is dictated by the tool you use. While it's possible to just fill in an area and then use kneaded eraser to create the highlights by erasing, it's not as intuitive and post people don't like using that approach. If it's a medium where you can easily put on or take of any value easily, then we go to the next consideration.

2) Look at the value at the point of the terminator on the form--that should be the base local value you "fill" your shape with, and then from there you can do the shadow and highlight passes. This to me is the most logical and flexible way to work, because it allows you to make changes to all three main value groups on separate layers easily (and this is what I teach my students in the workshop I teach here at CGSociety).

What you mentioned about which value is dominating the most percentage wise on the form is equally important too, and I consider that as well in conjunction to the terminator's value, and it depends on exactly the type of lighting I have to see which one I favor more.
  08 August 2014
Hi Robert, thanks a lot for your insight, always so thoughful as helpful!
To the point:

1) Sorry I forgot to mention that this time I'm going digital, so I'm trying to decide what would be the best approach for this particular case (black skins). I did some testing yesterday and a middle ground seemed to be very intuitive, though the end result is yet to be decent enough. I started with a middle tone, and the shadow pass came up quickly (as I'm used to do this with pencil and paper), and then the speculars and the highest values. That didn't turned out well, it seems that painting strong speculars on dark surfaces isn't as easy as one would think.

2) By the terminator of the volume are you referring to the point where the angle of the surface begins to define the shape? Or is it as in the terminator shadow, which is more light oriented/dependant? Would it be ok if I post the picture I'm trying to use as a ref to make an example with a concrete material?

3) Would do you think about picking up colors with photoshop from actual pictures? Is that a good exercise to realize what kind of tones and saturations are actually present? I was doing that a while ago and was amazed with the tones you could get. It can get tricky sometimes to deduct colors when they are in a context where they don't seem to vary in hue a lot, but then you pick them up, and there's a lot more variation that is evident at a first look.

I've been meaning to get into your workshop like forever, but for some reason the timing plus some pretty steep economic instability back home kept me from getting in it. Hopefuly now I got on a steady situation here in Ireland, and will be able to attend next one. Can't wait really.

Cheers and thanks again for your altruistic mentoring.
  08 August 2014
1) What is the problem you have with painting light values on dark values?

2) It's the transition area between the lit and shadow sides--the middle value. Keep in mind that the terminator isn't technically the middle value in some cases, because the shadow side might have light bounced onto it (radiosity), making the terminator actually a bit darker than the shadow side. So what you would do, is to determine the value of the terminator and fill the object, then paint a slightly lighter value as the bounced light onto the shadow area, and then a light value for the lit area.

3) As with anything in visual art, using reference without understanding the reasons/logic behind why the world looks the way it does, you're just using it as a crutch. But if you understand how thing work and why the variations in color happen in the first place, then the reference becomes a tool instead of a crutch.

You're the kind of student I love to teach--someone who is curious, passionate, intelligent, proactive, and very open to critiques. It would be my pleasure to officially become your mentor and give you the guidance and support that you need to fulfill your artistic aspirations.
  08 August 2014
1) It's not so much a problem of going from dark to light, but I've found out it's more an issue with integrating speculars to the skin, without it looking extremely detached and artificial. This pic is a good ref of what I mean:

2) Ok, understood perfectly. Thank you for such a clear explanation.

3) I see, I was thinking about it more in terms of "reverse ingineering" process, and not as in replacement of it's understanding like picking color and paint mindlessly.

I appreciate your coments a lot, it's only fair I finally get in the workshops as you have been mentoring me already with a lot of patience and good will. I'll try to give something back and joining your class is a nice first step I believe. Cheers!
  08 August 2014
In case anyone is interested, I found this guys showing his workflow for dark-tone skins. His works are pretty cool, so I'd recomend going through the vids in his channel.

  08 August 2014
Ok so I just went ahead and took a stab at it. I think it's a bit dark, but otherwise, it doesn't look too bad.

  08 August 2014
Ok, so I'm doing my research while also doing tests. At some point I just gotta get hands on the task, and I'm going to repeat this face until I get it right and then move on with the rest of the piece. I tried to replicate the result of the sphere on a human face. The highlight spec is looking very very awful even if I tried to compose it and integrate it better, I just keep failing miserably and I can't really put my finger on the real problem. As for the rest of the test, I've been building it from dark to light, and I'm starting to get comfortable with it. So it's not a complete lost.

Any feedback or clues on what's going wrong is very welcome, meanwhile I'll keep doing, going back and forth and sharing whatever results I come up with. Thanks for reading, cheers!
  08 August 2014
1) Do you meant that because dark skin tends to reflect light more obviously, that the specular highlight will alter the "local value" of the skin too drastically (creating an extreme contrast of either really dark or really bright)?

If that's what you meant, then try to think of it this way: Dark skin, due to the more dramatic specular highlights, are often visually a lot more interesting and dynamic looking, allowing certain visual interests that you can't easily get with lighter skin tones. When you look at really good fine art photography featuring subject with dark skin, this is often very obvious.

There are certainly ways to light a dark-skinned subject so the contrast is much more controlled--you just have to pay attention to where you place the light source relative to the position of the subject and viewer, so the angle does not create a drastic reflection on the skin. Using more diffused lighting helps too, but the placement is still important.

3) There are some exercises you can do to greatly increase your ability to assess colors/values accurately even when there are distracting surrounding colors that would cause your brain to malfunction (such as those popular optical illusions). The more you understand about the science behind human visual perception and how light and color works, the more you'll be able to overcome many issues that plague less experienced artists. You'll learn about all of this stuff in great detail in the workshop.

As for the problem with your highlight, you're blowing it out--that's the main problem. When you are managing the values in your entire image, you must take care to only use the absolute limit of darkest darks and lightest lights in specific areas that really need them, and if you arbitrarily blow out your highlights or burn in your shadows, you'll be decreasing the overall dynamic range of your tonal composition by a great deal.

You have to think about what exactly is the type of lighting on this face. Why is the rim light so darn bright, while the rest of the face so dark? Did you want a very high contrast lighting scheme? In the sphere study, is that gray background meant to be optimal exposure (equivalent to middle-gray in photography exposure)?

I'm a huge fan of Michael K. Williams (his portrayal of Chalky White is stunning), so let's take a look at how the DP's on Boardwalk Empire chose to light him in the show:

Notice how the amount of specular highlights (and how bright they are) can be controlled with lighting. So If you don't want a high contrast look that's too dramatic, you can choose a softer lighting scheme. This is just one of the issues you face as a visual artist (including photographer) when working with dark skinned subjects, and you just have to pay extra attention to it.
  08 August 2014
Thanks a million Robert, I'll read every line extensively later (lot of work today) and get back here with answers to clarify what I was talking about, and new tests with this information. Thanks a lot. Cheers!
  08 August 2014
1) Yes, that's kind of what I meant. I've observed a number of images where this contrast exist but I can't seem to pull off that kind of look, which is what I'm going for. I'm going for strong contrast. This could be a pretty good example of what I'll try to achieve.

It's not so much that should affect the "local value/color" but more a matter of where does the highlight actually blows off and how to integrate it more smoothly with the values/hues of the skin itself.

I'll keep in mind the advice you wrote for this point in my next test. It should put me in the right path, though the lighting has been set, and as I'm happy with it I'm not sure I'm considering moving the light (as it also gives me the mood I'm going for)
This is the piece I'm talking about by the way:

3) Awesome, I'm eager to begin and get all that knowledge printed with fire in my brain

The sample above plus the lighting sketch might give you a pretty good idea of what I'm going for (in case you were wondering, or I wasn't being clear enough, which I believe might be the case). It might be brighter than it needs to be, but I still want this effect where the sun seems to be hitting hard and dangerous on him, relentless and (even if it sounds contradictory) cold. Yeah in the sphere test, the background should be the "middle-exposure" for the situation.

I've been a fan of Michael K Williams after I've seen him perform Omar in The Wire, such an increible character. Haven't seen Boardwalk Empire yet.

I see they treat this values/tones very carefully with lighting. In this case all the enviroments look pretty sofisticated and controlled. I'm going for a "The Wire" look, more rough, even if there's plenty of overcast scenes where the values on dark skin are pretty well balanced as well. I think the "sun-burning" look fits my scene better.

I'll get my hands on reviewing my test with all this new information, hoping it will sink in. I might get on the specular layer particularly, as I believe it's the worst looking right now and I need to understand how to make it work.
Thanks a lot!
  08 August 2014
Ok, I took the test a bit further, trying a different approach for the hilight/spec. It looks slightly better I think, still a long way to go though.

  09 September 2014
I'm a huge fan of The Wire too. It's on my list of all-time favorite TV shows, and one of the finest examples of how good television can be as a stoytelling medium. If you liked his performance as Omar, you'll get your socks blown off by his performance as Chalky White. It's incredible, especially when you contrast him as the character against how he is in real life when doing interviews--it's as if he's a completely different person from the inside out, and even the hardness of his face is masterfully altered--that petulant, indignant, irreverent mien that's his default face on the show.

The latest study looks pretty good. If you are doing it for the image on the stairs, then why not do the study in the context of the scene instead of on a neutral gray background?

Have you tried shooting reference photos to get exactly what you want/need? Find a similar lighting setup (natural, or set it up with lights yourself to mimic it) and have someone with dark skin pose for you.
  09 September 2014
I'll definetely check out Boardwalk Empire. Have never been too tempted to watch it, but I will just to see M. K. Williams. We're on the same page with The Wire, hands down one of the best series ever. One thing I've always loved about HBO is the cast choices, they never ever fail on it (they even nailed the child actors on season 04).

I though it was a good idea to isolate the issue, dark skins in this case, before adding the complexities of tackling skin colors/tones/values on top of the artistic/story telling side of it and the enviroment influence on it. I do realize now that this kind of subjects are particularly sensitive to the enviroment lighting as they reflect a lot of it and help describe the shapes and volumes as much as its properties. So maybe it wasn't that great of an idea, though now I have a better understanding to start applying this on the final piece.

I'll try to shoot the reference, it might be not so easy to get the subject, as being caucassian myself I'm afraid a lot of people will be a bit sensitive about my requests (not that there's anything wrong with it, but I don't have any friends or relatives that I could use so coming out of the blue like that might be not taken in the right tone). Either way, I'll try to shoot ref at least with me. I do have a pretty good idea of what I want though, but some specific reference will always help a great deal.

Thanks a million Robert,
  09 September 2014
I find that if you are sincere, even strangers will be willing to help you. For example, you can show on your phone/tablet/laptop the sketch of the guy on the stairs and also references photos you've been studying to just strangers you see out in public, and explain that you don't have anyone close to you who matches the look you're going for, and it would be super awesome if someone was willing to model for you artwork. Maybe you can even offer payment in a beer and pizza and make a new friend out of the experience.

I personally am not shy at all in that context. I've been going up to people to ask if I could draw them ever since I was a teenager. In a way, my artistic pursuit was like an armor for me, where I could be extremely confident even when talking to girls that I thought were way out of my league, simply because I knew I could draw very nice portraits of them that would blow them away. One of the most unforgettable romances in my life happened because I was mesmerized by a girl on the bus and skipped going off my stop so I could keep drawing her. I then gave her the portrait drawing with my phone number on the back. That lead to an amazing romantic experience that rivals the stuff they put in movies.
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