Light and Shadow – Contrasts in the Desert

Stark shadows on a stone wall Nancy Smeltzer – MFA

While out at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, I was struck by the sharp contrast between light and shadows. Here in Maryland, on the east coast of the United States, the air has a lot more moisture in it, so there is not the stark variations in shadows. I was also out there in December, so I can only imagine how the shadows must appear against the blazing sun in the summer. Shadows were everywhere. Here is a cool shot that I took on one of the walkways. The center was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a famous American architect, and there are many beams over the walkways. This shot stuck my eye as the shadows grazed across the surface of one of the walls of large pieces of various colored stones embedded in concrete. Here, however, under the sun’s glare, the colors of the stones appeared to fade out into pretty much the same color. I thought that the spaces where there was light would be a great place to do intricate machine quilting. I might even sacrifice some of my beloved beading to let the machine quilting show if I were to use this design in an art quilt.

Shadows in a stairwellThis is another shot of that same walkway, but taking the long look down the pathway in the other direction. You can see the overhanging beams that created the shadows on the wall on the left that appeared in the first photo. I love the box within a box look that is what I tried to portray in the art work for the banner heading for this blog. It reminds me a lot of Escher‘s art work (Scroll down the page when you use this link to get the translation button if you don’t speak Dutch.) {Another great link is on Artsy}The whole effect in this photo is created because of the shadows, as the walkway was fairly straight with openings out into the parking lot on the right of this photo. I probably should have taken another photo at night, so you could see what the site really looked liked, but it would have been nowhere near as interesting as this photo bathed in shadows.

Shadow of a desert cactusEven the shadows of the plants were often more interesting than the actual plants themselves. The short cactus shown in this photo (about 14″ or 35.5cm) has a LOT of prickly spines up and down the length of the stalk and out onto the club-like endings. However, at least in December, they’re not much to look at, as the color is pretty much the same over all. However, look how cool the shadows that were made against the desert sand. They appear to be variations of crosses, or daggers stuck in the sand, or many other more interesting shapes than the actual plants.

One of my newest favorite art books is YOUR ARTIST’S BRAIN by Carl Purcell. (Do I ever wish that I had had him as a drawing teacher in art school!) I’m getting so much art theory and design by reading it. One of the pieces of advice that I was reading yesterday was about value in a piece of art, meaning the quality of lights and darks in the piece. I know that some art quilters use a piece of red plexiglass to look at their compositions, as that tends to break down the work into lights, medium, and dark colors. Carl Purcell advice was…” Value alone does not make something visible: it is the contrast between the object’s value and the surrounding value that does.” I’m grateful for having had the chance to see really sharp contrasts while I was out in the desert, and I look forward to seeing how it will affect my future compositions.

Do you ever pay attention to shadows and the patterns that they make? How might you incorporate more contrast in your own artistic medium?

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