Monday, July 23, 2012

Bone White

For the past couple months I've been having a mental block when it comes to an artist's use of white. I feel like I understand the importance of controlling both white and black and most of that comes from my educational background. "Nothing is pure white or black, remember that!" And for the most part that's true. So I learned to mix some color into opposite ends of the value scale to add "richness" and "flavor" to my work. And I gotta say, it's quite pleasing to paint without the extremes.

BUT!! I can't help but notice the works of art created by amazing creative people that manage to push good ole" #FFFFFF into their images. Now granted, there ARE times when absolute white is acceptable. Sometimes it's dependent on the surface material or the strength of the light source. Sometimes it's used to push and pull values against adjacent tones so as to separate forms. But there are times when I'm completely taken aback at a certain piece and just how WELL white was used to punctuate an area. So I ask myself how and why the artist chose to render pure white in said area and often times I can find an answer. 9 times out of 10 were it my piece I would have held off and softened that glaring daub of light. But...there it is, plain as day...and it works.

Let me try and show some examples of what I mean:

Below are a selection of images with relatively strong lighting (now before you get all technical on me remember I said "relative".) For example the image of the pirate-looking fellow in the bottom left is holding a torch. This, being the light source, is naturally the brightest spot on the page. So yes, the center of the torch hits a pure white area. The white beard however does not. The light of the torch dissipates and as such his his fluffy facial hair might hit a very bright yellow but not pure white. In the Magic: The Gathering image called "Mentor of the Meek" by Johannes Voß and Jana Schirmer there is again, a pure white light source with bright-yet-duller highlights on the swordsman. In the upper right environment by Maxim Revin called "Balieve" there is a strong out of frame light coming from the right that's shining over a gray metallic/stone path leading our eye towards the structure in the distance. Even the brightest foreground value here never reaches pure white.

So the common trend I've found in the images above are a relatively strong (if not white) light source, whether depicted in-frame or not, and a softer highlight value on the focal point. The only exception I see is in Marek Okon's "Shrapnel" image of the mech suit at the top. The sword she's holding is understandably metallic with high specularity so having it reflect the same value as the light source makes sence. All of these images utilize light in a way I would normally for any of my images.....I "get" these.

But the images below throw around light in a much more pronounced fashion. First off I wan't to explain that I'm not focusing on any metal materials in these images. Like I mentioned, the properties of metal (especially polished metal surfaces) will react almost like a mirror and reflect the light source directly. So what I'm looking are all all non-metallic surfaces; skin, hair, fur, stone, etc. Take Jeff Simpson's Ezio piece for Assassins Creed. There's a strong light that's above and slightly back-lit illuminating Ezio's shoulders while another front light is filling out his mid section. virtually everything on here that hits pure white is made of metal, except for the fur on his left shoulder (our right) the same goes for rim light on his head and left arm, which is mostly a matte/leather material. Now I can see how this was needed to pop Ezio off his mid-tone background but I again feel that if I were to approach this piece I would have gone light enough to pop the character off the BG but scale in back just a bit so we never hit a solid #FFFFFF value. In Zhang Lin's cover of his comic book "Remember" there's a strong side/rim light our of frame to the right that's lighting up the character's hair and skin with, you guessed it, pure white. In Christopher Rabenhorst's image for the "Escobar Project" in the lower left, the camera is looking almost directly into the sun light that's cause a nice bloom effect about the rooftops. But the little slice of light that's pouring onto the steps ALSO hits a pure white level, though the surface material is matte stone and the relation to the light source is neither directly perpendicular nor extremely parallel. However in Sparth's "Mother Planet 2" image in the middle right, the back stone wall is directly perpendicular to the light source, so the surface will be catching as much light as possible. Fine, but it also reaches pure white status to the left of the frame. The local color of the stone appears to be a fairly high-key gray value, so obviously it will be very bright in the sunlight but why would you chose to make it SOLID white?

From what I see, images that manage to punch out their highlights tends to have a more photographic look. And depending on the image I certainly gravitate towards that aesthetic. But what I don't understand in my own work is WHEN to use this effect.

So! I'm asking you all. When, if ever, do you decide to get all bone-white with your work?? Remember, I'm not talking about highly reflective materials like glass or metal. And I'm not referring to the light source itself. I'm talking when and how do you chose to use pure white for your highlights on a matte/non glossy surface material?


  1. Awesome post man, and for the question... shit no idea I've often wondered the same thing. Besides reflect surfaces (like metal and etc.) I can't figure out when to use pure white or black. Black is a little easier I because I never go pure black, but white is another story. I agree with it looking more photo real like you said but that's because photos tend to blow out whites and light sources because of the ways the lens sees contrast.

    Another thing I noticed was sometimes in the hr. still-lifes I do just hitting an edge or center of a highlight on a waxy fruit looks really nice. Working from pictures and then color picking afterword for these still-lifes shows up as pure white all the time, but then again those are photos too.

  2. I totally get what you mean on black. I think it not QUITE as but an issues only because blacks/darks are reserved for shadow areas which, depending on the lighting setup, i feel are more often then not rendered with soft edges. They help to push everything back and aren't always the center of interest. But white, especially pure white, ends up being the brightest point on the page. And those highlights are prone to having nice sharp edges so I feel like they pull much more interest when they're centered around the focal point. So understanding how to use them effectively is something I'm trying to figure out.

    I definitely get what you're saying about the photos though. Since I got my camera last December I've been figuring out how different exposures will reveal certain objects and hide others, most notably a sunset. There was a great one just the other night so I went on my roof to grab a few shots:

    Because I was shooting directly into the sun I had to lower my ISO and shoot with a faster shutter speed so the shot didn't get blown out. SO! It makes for some really accurate color in the sky, and the sun being the light source is obviously white. But that makes EVERYTHING in the foreground silhouetted and blacked out. Conversely, and what I tend to see more often in enviro. concepts, the artist is essentially setting the exposure for the foreground-middleground scenery and so the sky exposure is completely blown out to white (as is the case with that soldier terrorist image above on the left).

    I think we just gotta start experimenting with it more and find what will suite the image best. Gotta stop sticking so directly with what we learned in school and bend the rules a bit to push the realism.