Posts made in May, 2011

On Cast Shadows

Posted by on May 3, 2011 in Blog | 0 comments

“Too late I loved thee, beauty both so ancient and so new!” – St. Augustine

Okay, that’s a little hyperbolic, but it still aptly describes my newfound appreciation for cast shadows. I frickin’ love these guys.

Just so we’re clear on the terms, a cast shadow is dark patch formed by something coming between an object and the light source illuminating it. This is distinct from part of an object being IN SHADOW because part of it faces away from the light source. For instance, if I am performing on a spotlighted stage, the back of my head and clothes will be IN SHADOW, but I will CAST A SHADOW on the wall behind me, and perhaps my microphone will cast a shadow on my own chest.

In real life, cast shadows are everywhere, but in comics, artists often need to reduce their number to keep a composition from becoming an unintelligible mess. Many cast shadows are also distracting and unflattering: the shadow the nose casts on the upper lip at noonday, when drawn in stark black and white, has a tendency to look like Hitler’s mustache.

Isn’t the image at left so much better?

However, cast shadows in comics can also be used to tremendous effect in any of several different ways.

1.) They indicate a light source. This is pretty obvious, but cast shadows can do wonders to establish the time of day or the location of a lamp, candelabra, etc.

2.) They define the object they fall on. Nothing makes a cylindrical object look more cylindrical than the big ol’ black semicircle of a cast shadow. We wouldn’t necessarily know that a speeding motorcycle has both wheels off the ground unless we saw that black oval on the ground beneath it. Shadows can also describe texture – the shadow I cast on a stucko wall will have ragged edges compared to one I cast on a linoleum floor.

3.) They assist in storytelling. A shadow can function like a big black arrow pointing to the intended center of attention, leading the reader’s eye. A shadow can let us know an enemy is approaching around the corner, and that he’s got a gun.

4.) Perhaps most subtly, they can suggest moods or even themes. When a father’s cast shadow falls across the face of his son, we begin to suspect that his domineering attitude is always with the boy, as if looming over him. A tiny businessman might cast an enormous shadow, suggesting his disproportionate financial power.

As an overall example, check out this panel from an amazing “Mandy Riley” 1983 comic drawn by Ernesto Garcia Seijas:

That cast shadow 1.) establishes the light source as being somewhere outside the hut, to the right, 2.) further defines the location of the wall behind the hero, AND describes its texture as a rough, stone surface. 3.) The shadow helps clarify a rather tricky bit of stage-blocking, reemphasizing that the snake has actually wound partly around Mandy and is now facing his left shoulder. 4.) Notice that, while the actual snake’s head is facing Mandy, its shadow is facing the girl on the left. Thematically, this suggests that, while self-preservation is Mandy’s immediate goal, his ultimate purpose is to protect his benippled friend, menaced by the snake’s shadow. This type of suggestion may only work subconsciously, or it may only work for overanalytical nerds like me.

(By the way, I recommend that you check out the full Mandy story, El Torrente. Every single page is a total work of art. But bear in mind that it is in Spanish. Also, even with my limited Spanish skills, I can tell that it is DEFINITELY sexist and also quite racist. But I am getting desensitized to this kinda crap as I study Caniff, Toth and all these other dead comics geniuses. Unfortunately the best artists also drew some of the stupidest, most bigoted stories.)

Hooray for cast shadows! How many more can you spot in recent pages of Savage Nobles in the Land of Enchantment?

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