Does Your Scene work Better with Two Main Masses or Three?

Joaquín Sorolla, The Milkmaid

Joaquín Sorolla, The Milkmaid

A recent workshop attendee sent this image of “The Milkmaid” by Joaquín Sorolla and asked about the “lighting.” We had discussed types of light in a breakout session. A lot of my study and understanding of how to interpret an artist’s vision I credit to Quang Ho. It is Quang to whom I give credit for the lightbulb going off (or is it on???) in my head. He uses a few different terms than I. As I absorbed his teaching and tumbled it around in my own mind, these terms are what made more sense to me personally. They are just words, after all, and we use them to try to describe the artist’s visual soul.

[Note to anyone who has ever studied with Quang or seen his videos, in this entry I will be using the term “relative value” which most closely relates to his “local tone” theory.]

It is important to note that Joaquín Sorolla did not go about thinking this way. It is not that every great painting or painter started as some kind of formula. Instead, this is more a way of thinking about artwork in order to better understand it. The chicken/egg analogy is a good one here. Also is tail wagging the dog or cart before the horse. You see what I mean? An artist’s expression is above all else. Discussing that artist’s expression requires concepts put into words.

First, a quick primer on four artistic design choices that relate to light:

  • Oblique Light or Light/Shadow. Two main masses (what people are teaching as Nōtan—defined below). Is the shape you are painting being hit by light or is it not? The answer to that question determines in which of the two masses your shape is sorted. This is form at its best: round “things” look round; contrast and long shadows increase drama; compressed values increase luminosity.

  • Silhouette. Two main masses (Nōtan). The light source itself against the shape it is backlighting. Flat shapes. No form.

  • Front Light. Two main masses (Nōtan). Tiny dark accents and/or foreground shadows help to convey the message. Flat shapes. No form.

  • Relative Value. Three main masses. It is how each of these three masses “relates” to the others that changes the entire idea. Although there are countless ways to use this, the most easily understood is that these relationships of tone create a story, spark a feeling, set a mood.

There is a fifth visual statement that sometimes relates to light, but is not dependent on it:

  • Light/Dark Pattern. More pattern than light dependent, this statement needs only two main values (Nōtan). How those two values are patterned is most important.

As with light/dark pattern, other visual statements could relate to light, but are not dependent on it. We won’t go there right now.

Finally, back to the original question and my thoughts.

Take a look at the example designs below. The first two rely on two main masses (Nōtan. This would be a light/dark pattern design Yes, there is some light and shadow, but it is not ABOUT light and shadow. Light and shadow is used minimally here. The third design relies on three main masses, what I refer to as relative value.

Light/Dark Pattern: Nōtan example 1.

Light/Dark Pattern: Nōtan example 1.

Light/Dark Pattern: Nōtan example 2.

Light/Dark Pattern: Nōtan example 2.

Relative Value: 3 values dominant*

Relative Value: 3 values dominant*


So, conclusion… preferring the relative value design, “I can name that tune in 3 notes.”


*More about dominant and supporting statements in a later blog post.


Nōtan is an Anglicized version of the two Japanese characters: 濃淡 meaning light and shade. The first character, when written alone, means dark: Ko in Japanese. The second character, when written alone, means light: awa in Japanese. Essentially, it is the combination or pattern of light and dark flat shapes. It is the interaction between light and dark. In 1854 Japan opened its ports to trade allowing examples of Japanese art to be viewed in Europe and America. Arthur Wesley Dow is credited with the first western use of the term in a book in 1899.