Light and Shadow in Art – The Fundamentals of Light, Part 1: The Science & The Basics Made Clear

light and shadow in art

The Science & The Basics

I’m not sure many people fully appreciate the nature of what artists attempt to do each time we set out to render light and shadow in art. I know I haven’t fully understood it, let alone appreciated it, even as I am in the middle of rendering.

As I continue to really dig into what Light is, I am awestruck and so thankful to all the scientists and artists who came before me—the giants upon whose shoulders we stand—because the subject of Light is huge, and I am glad they already figured all this stuff out for us 😅.

It is difficult not to get philosophical here because what we are really doing when we render light is re-creating the properties and behaviors of light in a 2D space—and those behaviors and properties encompass several sub-branches of modern Physics, including: Quantum Physics, Modern Optics, Geometric Optics, and Physical Optics.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that different aspects of light behavior and properties come under several different categories of Physics that are each quite involved areas all their own.

That was my not-so-subtle warning that The Fundamentals of Light gets quite technical.

The understanding we gain for our art is totally worth it, and we need three things for sure: 1) Patience, 2) Plenty of visual examples, and 3) More than one post to go through the massive amounts of information.

For any of you who are much better scientists than I, please forgive any inaccuracies in my scientific understanding or explanation. I endeavor to be an expert artist, not physicist 😋 , but I do try to be as accurate and as clear as possible. If I get something wrong, please let me know in the comments and I will do my best to make corrections.

I hope you will hang in there with me as I break down the technical bits (that’s the patience part), I hope the examples and information I share help your practice, and that you’ll find it useful enough to look forward to the future posts in this series. Since this is the first, let’s start digging into to the science, shall we?

The Science—What is Light?

To understand how to render light and shadow we must grasp the concept of what light is and how it behaves.

Light is a type of energy created by the emission of photons within the electromagnetic spectrum. If that sounded like gobbledygook, fear not, I shall explain.

A photon is a “small bundle” of electromagnetic energy and the basic unit that makes up all light. Thus, photons are the building blocks of light.

Electromagnetic energy describes forms of energy that are reflected or emitted from objects as electrical and magnetic waves that can travel through space. The Electromagnetic Spectrum shown below describes these energies as frequencies and wavelengths.

Electromagnetic Spectrum

The light effects we paint represent a fixed and narrow range of the Electromagnetic Spectrum called the Visible spectrum, which is a narrow group of wavelengths between approximately 380 nm (nanometers) and 730 nm.

As illustrated in the diagram above, The Electromagnetic Spectrum contains several other forms of light, however most of them are at frequencies we can feel but not “see”.

All light has both a frequency and a wavelength, and all light can behave as both a particle and a wave depending on the situation. In fact, both light and matter have particle-wave duality in their properties and behavior. It’s important for artists to understand this duality because it affects our thinking and problem solving regarding light at different stages during rendering.

When we begin to invent our images we must also invent our lighting. When we are mentally calculating the direction of our light source, its reflections, and fall off, it is helpful to think of light as particles, or rays, that travel in straight lines.

This helps us figure out how much of our object will be lit, how to place the form shadows and cast shadows, and where the bounce light will land. When objects are opaque, I have found considering light primarily as rays helps me best determine how to render the light.

When objects are translucent, transparent, or have variable reflectivity, things start to get more complex because light is not simply being absorbed and reflected but also transmitted through the object. Transmission of light through objects gives us more to consider and calculate because it gives us more to paint, like subsurface scattering, refraction, and more reflections.

Let me put your mind at ease and say it is not necessary to do any complex mathematic calculations to paint these effects, just some additional concepts to understand and visual calculations to make.

When we think about reflection, refraction, and absorption, it helps to think of light first as a particle or ray (for determining the light’s intensity, direction, and bounce) and then as a wave—for determining which wavelengths are reflected off, absorbed by, and/or transmitted through the object and the ground.

That was a huge mouthful, I know. I will be going over all of these more nuanced areas in other posts in this series.

Understanding the particle-wave duality of light begins to give us a clear view of how light’s behavior changes as it interacts with different materials. Watching the videos below helped me gain a clearer understanding of this concept, and I hope you find them useful, too.

As we bring together the elements we need to understand, we start to define the contours of The Fundamentals of Light so that we can start filling in details and particulars—and don’t worry, there will be photographic examples and demos so all of this becomes more clear.

Properties of Light & Matter for Artists

I know this has been a little science-heavy so far, and that’s intentional. It is how I make sense of complex topics, and I hope you find it helpful. Now that we’ve covered the basics of what light is, I’ll change things up a bit to keep everything digestible. I’ll cover a little science and do some explaining, and then use photographic examples or demos to clarify how the information helps in creating art.

Next, let’s dig into the properties of light, but first I want to give you a list of all the properties to keep in mind whenever it’s time to render light. This is a list according to me, and they’re based on my experience rendering light in both 2D (Photoshop) and 3D (Maya).

Light PropertiesMatter Properties
Number of SourcesForm/Shape
Type of Light(s)Local Color
Size of Source(s)Material Type
Distance from object/picture planeDensity
Angle/Height of Source(s)Reflectivity
Temperature/ColorTransmission
Exposure/IntensityRefractive Index
Fall OffEmission

Some of these are straightforward, so let’s talk about those briefly. The number of light sources is an important consideration because we need to know how much light information we’re working with. More light sources in a scene makes for a brighter image, but how each source affects the picture plane depends on all the other properties on the list.

The size and angle/height of each source are also straightforward properties and they ask questions like: Is a light source large, small, or medium? Do several small lights make up one larger source because of how closely grouped they are? Do these sources sit high or low on the picture plane? Are they even visible in the image, or are they shining from somewhere out of frame?

Under properties of matter, shape, form, local color, and material type are the most straightforward. We must know what shapes and forms make up the volume of the objects we’re rendering, and we need to know what color and material type they are. After all, there is quite a difference between painting a shiny chrome ball and painting a shiny colored plastic ball. Sure, they’re both shiny; but one is metal and ridiculously reflective while the other is plastic, softer, and much less reflective.

The Two Ways Our World is Lit

Despite all the science, properties, and moving parts involved with understanding how objects are lit, there really are only two ways anything receives light in our world: directly or indirectly.

Objects are either lit directly by a light source or indirectly by reflected light when the rays from the source bounce off some surfaces and objects to illuminate others. This kind of indirect lighting is also called Ambient Light and it is much weaker in comparison to direct light. Most lighting schemes will involve both direct and indirect lighting.

Next, we’ll go over the categories that light sources fall into.

Properties of Light – Types of Light Sources

There are 3 types of light sources:

  1. Key Light
  2. Fill Light
  3. Rim Light

Key Light

A key light is the strongest light source in your scene. It defines the emotional impact of the scene and is the primary descriptor of forms and drama. When you decide how to “key” your scene, you are choosing the overall mood and tonal range that will define it.

Fill Light

A fill light is not as bright as a key light and is often softer and a lot darker. Fill lights support your scene and subjects by adding light and color information in the shadows, which can illuminate an area of interest you wish the viewer to see or just provide added interest or balance to your scene. Fill light can be ambient (reflected) light, as I’ve done in my examples below, or it can come from an additional light source(s).

Rim Light

A rim light travels the outer edges of objects. Rim light helps define shapes, add dramatic appeal, and can be a helpful tool for adding compositional information and/or emotional impact.

No matter what kind of mood a story or scene calls for, any lighting scheme will have at least a key light and, likely, some combination of all three light source types.

Okie dokie, how’re you doing? I know this has been a lot to get through, and I hope you’re still hanging in there with me. Deep breaths, we’ve got this!

Now, it’s time to go over some terminology to help keep things clear as we continue to move through the Fundamentals of Light.

Defining Terminology + Sphere Tests

Think of this as the glossary section of this post. Here I’ll define the frequently used terms that will show up quite often from now on in both my writing and the call-outs in demos and examples.

Light Source

Anything that creates and emits light. Light sources can be natural, like the sun, moon, and fire, or artificial, like lamp posts, flashlights, and device screens.

Light Direction & Angle

The orientation of a light source relative to the picture plane. For example, low and out of frame on the left, or mid-level and in frame on the right.

Exposure

The intensity or strength of a light source. A high exposure light source makes for a brighter, “high key” scene, while a lower exposure light will make a scene appear less bright. I tend to use exposure and intensity interchangeably.

Center Light

The area of a form receiving most of the light; the lit side of a form.

Highlight

The brightest area on a form. This is usually a small area that is receiving the most direct light and reflecting a bit of it back.

Half Tone

The area on a form that has begun to turn away from the light source, resulting in a transition area of light to shadow. This area is receiving some light, but not nearly as much as the parts of the form facing the light source more directly.

Reflected/Bounce Light

Light that bounces off a surface and then lands on another form or surface is Reflected or “bounce” light. Reflected light is much weaker than direct light and can occur on any part of a form, except occluded areas.

Terminus/Terminator

The point at which light cannot land on a surface. This is where the shadow side of the form begins.

Shadow Core

The darkest part of the form shadow. The shadow core on a sphere typically looks like a dark band right next to the terminus, a clear separator between the light and shadow. The core shadow is also the part of the form shadow least affected by reflected light.

Form Shadow

The areas of a form that are in complete shadow and receive no direct light.

Occlusion Shadow

Occlusion shadows are the darkest areas in shadows and on/within forms where absolutely no light can reach. When something is occluded it is completely obstructed or blocked, so when light is occluded you have complete darkness.

We see occlusion most often in narrow areas right beneath forms before the cast shadow begins, and with narrow openings, cracks, and crevices of surfaces/forms. Occluded areas are not sufficiently open enough to the environment to receive any light, so there is only shadow.

Cast Shadow

Cast shadows is created when an object’s form blocks light. Objects block light adjacent to themselves and in the shape of their contours. There are three distinct parts to a cast shadow, the Umbra, Penumbra, and Antumbra. Much of the time, in art, we are only painting an umbra and penumbra. When multiple light sources of different intensity and direction/angle are involved, we begin to see examples of all three parts of a cast shadow.

  1. Umbra: Umbra is Latin for “shadow”. The umbra is the innermost and darkest part of a cast shadow, where the light source is completely blocked by the form creating the shadow. [i]
  2. Penumbra: Penumbra is Latin for “nearly” and “almost”. The penumbra is further from the object and lighter than the umbra. Further away from the object light from the source and the environment can influence and brighten the shadows.
  3. Antumbra: The antumbra is the lightest and softest part of a cast shadow. The technical definition is confusing and unnecessary for our purposes, but if you’re curious click here.

Now, I’m going to show a few sphere test examples to visually illustrate the terms above so we can make practical sense of all you’ve been reading.

Basic Light and Shadow Demo 06-add highlight-reflected light
Basic Light and Shadow Demo 07-Sequential

The Distance of Light Sources & Why It Matters

Each property of light plays a role in affecting the mood of our scene and the light effects we paint, including shadows. The appearance and quality of shadows is determined by the light and forms that cast them. How near or distant a light source is to an object has a significant impact on the appearance of an object’s form shadows and cast shadows, so let’s get into that next.

Distant Light Sources (Sunlight, moonlight, spotlights, etc)

We can group lights into categories based on their characteristics, like size, distance, and how intense they are to get a starting place for how those lights would interact with the objects in our scenes.

Distant light sources are things like sunlight, moonlight, and powerful spotlights like those in stadiums and theaters. Distant lights tend to:

  • Be neutral lights.
  • Cause soft-edged form shadows.
  • Create cast shadows that are the same size and shape as the object because their light rays are parallel.

As one example, we know the sun is a huge, very distant, powerful light source, and from observation we know that light from the sun strongly illuminates everything it reaches. That means light is bouncing around everywhere in our atmosphere and reflecting a lot of light, so we can expect brighter and more colorful shadows when the sun is involved.

Playing with exposure also makes a big difference, so an overcast grey sky lowers the exposure, diffuses the light, and makes the sunlight seem much less energetic than a clear and cloudless sky, and creates lighter, softer, and less colorful shadows.

The Sun is also larger than our Earth, and any object we would light with it, so we must also consider the sun as an “oversized” light, which we’ll get into in a minute.

Nearby Light Sources

Nearby light sources are things like lamps, candles, device screens and monitors, lighters, matches, lanterns, etc. Nearby light sources tend to create:

  • Larger cast shadows because the light rays are no longer parallel.
  • Shorter and sharper (harder edged) cast shadows the closer they are to objects, longer and softer cast shadows the further they are from objects.
  • A higher terminus and a larger form shadow.
  • A more active or energetic feel and added tension to a scene.

When nearby light sources are also quite small (like candlelight or a lighter), they tend to cast hard edged cast shadows. They present an additional composition challenge because they can become distracting if not handled carefully. Nearby light sources tend to become a focal point in a scene, so it’s important to be mindful of that and use it to your advantage for your chosen lighting scheme and compositional design.

Oversized or Diffuse Light Sources

Examples of oversized or diffuse light sources are the entire sky on an overcast day (sky light), light coming through large windows, and any light that is scattered by being translucently covered or blocked (like a paper lantern, a light sheet or cloth, an umbrella, or frosted glass covering for light bulbs). Oversize or diffuse light sources tend to:

  • Cause an object’s terminus to move further away from the light source (the larger the light source is larger relative to the object).
  • Create softer edged shadows.
  • Make environments and characters feel softer, warmer, and more friendly.

In the case of light sources that are larger than the objects they illuminate, the light rays are travelling out in random directions, reflecting off the atmosphere and other objects and surfaces, and filling in the shadows, which softens them. Shadows become softer edged because light does not reach each part of the shadow area equally, and because the object blocks (occludes) part of the light area behind it.

Ambient Light

Ambient light is created when light from a source is reflected off the ground, other objects, and the environment. It is possible for objects to be exclusively lit by ambient light, but a key light (which is usually a direct kind of light) is still needed to emit the light that will be reflected.

Terms like indirect light, reflected light, and bounce light all mean the same thing: they are all ambient light. Ambient light is most noticeable in shadows because of the contrast, but it is present whenever and wherever reflected light lands on an object or surface.

Light rays lose most of their strength and brightness (90%) with each bounce, and they are bouncing around multiple times. This loss of strength is why ambient light is generally weak and cannot reach into occluded areas.

You may have come across the term ambient occlusion, especially as it relates to lighting in 3D modeling apps like Maya and Zbrush. In drawing and painting, if zero light can reach an area, I simply refer to this as an occlusion shadow or an occluded area.

For a bit more on ambient light and ambient occlusion, here’s a video by Marco Bucci (awesome artist!) that I found helpful.

Light Direction & Angle: How They Affect A Scene

In any lighting scheme, cast shadows are a compositional and mood element that should be considered and planned. Choosing the light’s direction and angle is an important step in setting the emotional tone of a scene as well as defining forms and helping viewers to understand how to react to what they are seeing. Cast shadows can add drama and mystery to a scene, particularly when the object or character casting the shadow is off camera.

Different light directions and angles offer a variety of mood options, and I’ve listed a few here:

  1. Direct Overhead Lights:
    • Tend to read as unnatural.
    • Can help create tension and drama, and how much depends on the light’s exposure and temperature.
  2. Angled Light from the side:
    • Defines form.
    • Reads as active and energetic.
    • Adds dramatic tension.
  3. Frontal light (slightly to the side and above, not directly in front):
    • Comfortable way of positioning light.
    • Keeps an object/character from being in too much shadow.
    • Good at defining form.
    • Reads as soft and friendly.
  4. Under Lighting:
    • Is the most unnatural of all the lighting directions.
    • Feels dramatic in spooky, creepy, threatening, and unnatural ways.

How you choose to render your light will always depend on the position and point of view of the audience, and the message that needs to be conveyed.

The Fundamentals of Light—Breaking Down The Parts

Even though we learn in steps and stages, I find it helpful to get the “lay of the land” because it provides a road map, and it’s nice to at least have some idea of what we’re doing, right? With that in mind, I have listed the major headings that are part of studying The Fundamentals of Light and broken out some detail for the area we’ve covered today.

Deep breath…

  1. Properties of Light
    • Light Sources
    • Types of Light
    • Terminology & Sphere Tests
    • Fall Off & Form Changes
    • Exposure
  2. Light & Surface Color
  3. Reflections
  4. Translucence & Transparency (Transmission)
  5. Light & Materials
  6. Atmospheric Effects & Atmospheric Perspective
  7. The Human Experience of Light
  8. Rendering/Visual Styles

Next Time: The Fundamentals of Light, Part 2!

Take a moment to think of your absolute favorite treat for relaxing and pampering yourself. See it, visualize it in your mind’s eye. Now…get yourself that treat! You have just made it through a massive amount of information in a relatively short(ish) amount of time.

Congratulations!

Thank you for hanging in there with me. I’ve tried to keep things clear and concise, but I know this was a lot to take in. I commend you, I thank you, and I am sending you virtual high fives and fist bumps!

We need some forms before we render light, so if you need guidance in that area I have some posts covering Form and The Fundamentals of Art to help.

The next couple of posts in my Fundamentals of Light series will cover exposure and fall off, and then absorption, reflection, and refraction of light wavelengths.

If I’ve confused you, if you have questions, or if I’ve gotten anything wrong, please message me in the comments and I’ll do my best to clear things up.

I hope you’ll join me for those as well.

Take care, and happy drawing everyone!


[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umbra,_penumbra_and_antumbra

Top 5 Art Fundamentals for Beginners

Top 5 Art Fundamentals for Beginners

Welcome fellow artists! Thank you for sharing part of your day with me to talk about art fundamentals 😊.

Since you’re here it means you are looking for answers regarding the fundamentals of art and other art concepts like painting, color, composition, anatomy, value, and many others I’m sure. When we start our art journey, we have tons of questions about art and its elements. I’m happy to share everything I have learned as an artist because I remember the struggle of becoming.

There are almost always pre-established paths, curriculum, video courses, books, and other avenues for getting whatever knowledge we seek. These avenues lay out what the essential or fundamental parts are for any discipline and stress the importance of learning those fundamentals to achieve success—and for good reason, as our work and understanding tend to fall flat without them. Everything there is to learn has fundamentals intended to serve as our foundation.

A foundation is our primary source of essential knowledge and skills, and once completely established it supports us as we grow from it and built on it. Have you ever heard the phrase “We stand on the shoulders of giants”? The artists that came before us, from masters to hobbyists, have already laid the groundwork for us. We don’t need to reinvent anything, all we must do is learn the basics, each art concept, and do the work to make our art.

Yes, it is a process. Yes, it does take years. That’s okay! It’s worth it, and so is your art dream.

What are the Fundamentals of Art?

Search for “art fundamentals” or “what are the fundamentals of art?” online and you quickly get a cornucopia of mish-mashed information about art and design.

There is a difference between a fundamental, a principle, and an element. A fundamental is something you start with and then build on. A principal is similar to a fundamental, but it can also be a set or list of things that make up one encompassing fundamental. I think about it this way: if there are multiple principles, then whatever heading they’re all listed under is the actual fundamental.

Take the Principles of Design, for example. There are at least seven of those, but Design is the fundamental. Make sense? An element is literally a component, one part, of a whole. All fundamentals have elements, but no single element is a fundamental on its own.

Why Learn the Fundamentals of Art?

Because you want to draw and paint awesome stuff without tearing out your hair, that’s why.

Making quality art requires us to understand all the fundamentals of art as well as their elements, including painting, color theory, composition, color mixing, anatomy, perspective, design, etc. Understanding each of the fundamentals, each concept, in depth is a process and an investment in ourselves as artists. You have goals as an artist that you dream of meeting, and your journey is about equipping yourself to get where you want to be and rocking it when you arrive. So let’s gear up by going over this list.

My Top 5 Art Fundamentals for Beginners

To be completely honest and transparent, this list represents the top 5 art fundamentals according to me. Others may disagree, but I have been working at this long enough—and I have classically trained enough—to present this list with confidence. The order I list them in is based off years of study, practice, and wall smacking.

  1. Forms
    • Line
    • Shapes
    • Structure (Construction)
    • Proportion (Illusion of Mass and Dimension)
  2. The Fundamentals of Light (Tones/Values, includes basic Color Theory & Mixing)
  3. Drawing from Life
  4. Gesture Drawing & Anatomy
  5. Perspective

My key reasoning for the order of this art fundamentals list is quite simple: Historically and to this day, most times when I hit a wall it’s in one or more of these five areas that I find the solutions I need. Had I built a stronger background in these earlier on, I would’ve hit fewer snags. The strength of our foundation plays an important role in how we navigate our way through any challenge, and no matter how experienced we become, problem solving and corrections will always be part of our creation process.

It’s good to get different perspectives on things, so here’s the awesome Bobby Chiu on what the fundamentals of art are:

With all that in mind, let’s start digging into these top five fundamentals and help you on your way.

1. Form

When we talk about Form in art, we’re referring to an object’s overall shape, volume, and contours which include line, depth, and mass. Seeing and constructing Forms are the first and most vital skills we must develop as artists.  Practicing the analysis, understanding, and building of Forms creates a strong foundation for developing and growing all other fundamental art skills. Line, shape, structure, and proportion are essential building blocks for anything you draw or paint.

The process of practicing each of these skills builds our visual library and the muscle memory needed to allow us to create whatever artwork we want. As artists we are in the business of communicating feelings, thoughts, impressions, messages, and stories, so let’s look at how developing our skill with Forms helps us.

Benefits of developing skill with Forms

1. We Learn to See

Practicing seeing and creating Forms helps us become familiar with the physical make-up of all the things that surround us and how all their parts come together to shape part of our experience.

2. We Learn to Analyze, Explore, and Take Risks

We begin to see connections, relationships, repetition, and similarities between and across forms and objects. This readies us to look more closely at each subject and better understand the fundamentals beyond the basics.

When you feel ready for more on Forms, I take a deeper dive into the topic in my Understanding Form post.

2.   The Fundamentals of Light: A Few Words on a Massive Topic

The study and practice of The Fundamentals of Light allows us to create Tones/Values in our work. Where Forms add the illusion of volume and dimension, light and shadow give objects a sense of mass, help further clarify surface texture and plane changes, explain the objects’ local tone and color, indicate mood, and show objects’ context within the picture plane.

Studying Light teaches us how it interacts with everything in the real world and helps us reproduce an illusion of its effects in two-dimensions. This practice helps us illustrate the properties, mood, and the character of the objects and people we draw and paint. With these two art fundamentals in our toolbox, we can create the illusion of any type of material, choose any level of detail, and guide the story to wherever it needs to be.

The process of practicing with light and shadow in art begins to bring us into other areas, such as color theory, color mixing, color key, light key, and painting. During this learning process, I recommend you to try to keep color simple. While color theory is relatively simple, a deft use of color takes years of practice and there are several elements involved when dealing with it. I also recommend using digital painting tools in addition to traditional painting to help with the study of color.

Digital tools are much more forgiving and are great for practicing and experimenting with value and color. My favorite thing about playing with color and value in a digital painting app, like ProCreate or Photoshop, is that they allow you to learn all the elements of color without having to mix color.

Mixing is its own thing–not a big thing, but still. Painting traditionally involves understanding the characteristics of each product (whether those are painting colors or mediums) and paint colors can vary wildly within a single color range and from brand to brand. Since traditional color mixing is so involved, it is best practiced separately from these five fundamentals.

Practicing each of these art fundamentals requires us to also practice Drawing from Life, which is the next area of fundamental practice I recommend for beginning artists.

3.   Drawing from Life: Growing Your Skills & Visual Library

Every time we make art from life, we are doing something very important for our art and for ourselves as artists. We are taking into ourselves the life around us and engaging with it. Sketching and Drawing from Life are how we have a dialogue with the object we are re-creating. The relationship we have with the world through this process develops and maintains our visual libraries.

To begin, I suggest starting small and simple.

Think of the different types of shapes and find objects from your daily life, and from nature, that include many of those shapes. Then, draw them a lot. Start with the basic shapes you see—i.e., circles, squares, triangles, etc.—to practice seeing the elements that come together to construct the forms, such as cylinders, spheres, cubes, boxes, pyramids, cones. Leave out details like the surface designs, textures, and colors for now, focusing only on the forms, local tone, and basic light and shadows.

Draw the objects from different viewpoints, at different times of day, in different positions, under different lighting conditions, on their own, and grouped with other objects. Some printer paper or a simple sketchbook and pencil are really all you need to get started.

Once you feel comfortable with the simple forms, take yourself to the next level of form complexity and alternate between organic and inorganic forms to help to keep things varied, fun, and to keep expanding your visual library. As you become comfortable with more and more complex forms, you will find yourself ready to begin tackling the most challenging ones: Humans and animals.

4.   Gesture Drawing & Anatomy: Massively Challenging, Awesomely Rewarding

For an artist, gesture drawing is essential for infusing a sense of motion, energy, and life into our artwork. As artists, we want to share art that feels alive, and gesture drawing and anatomy help achieve that. Gesture helps us add to the observation skills we build when creating from life by teaching us to see, accentuate, and exaggerate the motion in the poses of our subjects.

Every subject has gesture and motion; they are not exclusive only to humans and animals. Even when an object is static, like the trunk of a tree, it still has a gesture—it just doesn’t convey motion because it is not moving. Gesture is an area of study unto itself because creating the illusion of dynamic motion has its own set of terminology and guiding principles.

However, as with the other art fundamentals, gesture drawing builds on the other skills that were listed before it. Just as we construct our objects from lines and shapes, so too do we build our gestures. In a traditional gesture class (usually called Figure Drawing), we learn to identify the line of action for each pose and then build the forms around it. This also involves much practice in seeing, and accurately placing, the angles, proportions and distances between shapes and forms.

It is another form of drawing from life, with the specific life form being a human model.

Figure Drawing for Gesture Practice

At first, working with the figure feels quite daunting and challenging (and hilarious cuz there’s a naked stranger in front of you). I put it this far down on my list because it is a much more demanding skill. Even so, when you feel ready, I strongly encourage you begin adding gesture/figure drawing to your practice routine. It’s as fun as it is challenging, and it will help your hand and eye mature.

When I first started waaaay, back in 2001—OMG I’m totally aging myself—I was like all the rest of my first-time figure drawing artist classmates: giggly and terrible at drawing naked humans. I had no idea what I was doing, and that was fine. At first it’s quite humbling, but with a good instructor (Thank you, Professor Tacang!) I improved. If I can do it, so can you—with all the art fundamentals.

Remember, this is your journey so make it work for you and your art. I am here to act as a helpful guide and faithfully pass on what I learn.

The last skill in this first round of art fundamentals is one that helps pull everything together and adds an extra kick of believability to our creations.

5.   Perspective: Exciting and Technical…mostly.

The first four art fundamentals are all about building the solid drawing foundation we need to support us as we work to communicate through our art. Perspective is another powerful tool for our visual storytelling, and it is a bit different from the others. Whereas the other areas of fundamental study are focused on constructing, lighting and enlivening objects, Perspective focuses on the space the objects occupy.

It deals with how the orientation of each object changes depending on its position within that space, and where our point of view is set (POV). Perspective allows us to understand the spaces our objects and stories occupy, and to examine each from different points of view.

Access to any point of view in the story is the gift we gain by developing our skills with Perspective, and the impact of a story can change dramatically depending on the viewpoint from which it is told.

As with the other fundamentals of art, Perspective is an area of study unto itself and has its own set of terminology, rules, and ways of practicing. It is certainly one of the more technical areas of study in art.

Creating objects in perspective is a more guided way of working that calls for a lot of lines and points: horizon line, vanishing points, and construction lines. I think it can be exciting when it helps an idea come to life—but it can also feel dry and ass numbingly dull (or painfully frustrating) depending on where you are with it. Perspective is important to learn, important to understand, and, unfortunately, is also a skill many artists avoid early on. I know I did.

It made my head hurt, so I said “no, thank you”…to the detriment of my artwork. Eventually, I sucked it up and learned better (plus it really, really helps with composition!).

So…What About the Other Art Fundamentals? 

Believe me, there is no rush and the five we’ve just gone over will do the vital work of helping you build the foundation all your work rests on. The other art fundamentals: Color & Light, Principles of Design, Composition, and Line & Brushwork…they’re not going anywhere, and I’ll be here to help you make sense of them.

Thank you for hanging in there with me! I hope you have found this article helpful. If you have any questions, feedback, or if I have confused you at all, please let me know in the comments so I can help.