The creator and destroyer of light
Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 30, 2015.
A while back, I was reading an interview by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Lisel Mueller when I came across this description of how she begins a poem:
It is a very mysterious process, as you know, and I might go for many, many weeks without anything and then all of a sudden, something…something that usually becomes a first line, some new vision of a contrast between two things or a likeness among two things will come into my head and that is what starts a poem.
It’s a simple statement, but it’s worth unpacking. For one thing, it suggests that the minimum number of units required to spark a poem is two: one object on its own doesn’t give you much information, but once you have an interesting pair, you can begin to make comparisons. When you think back to the first fragments of poetry that you can remember offhand, they’re often lines that draw a contrast or a likeness between two dissimilar things (“When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table”). A pair of images or concepts, properly juxtaposed, generates associations that aren’t there with either one in isolation, and you could almost define poetry as the art of producing evocative combinations.
But it’s also useful to note Mueller’s emphasis on contrast. We see objects—or people—most clearly when they’re set against something else, and especially, I’d argue, when these contrasts are drawn within the setting of a uniform style. This may seem counterintuitive: when we think of contrast in writing, we tend to frame it in terms of a varied style or voice, but it really has more to do with the careful selection of the details themselves than with the mode in which they’re presented. Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere that all of the sentences on a well-written page should look more or less the same. This may seem to make contrast more difficult, but in fact, it’s only within this kind of uniformity that the contrasting qualities of the objects themselves, rather the author’s voice, come to the forefront. It’s why artists are often advised to imagine everything they draw as white: instead of relying on obvious elements of color or tone, they have to seek out contrasts that emerge from the shape of the subject as it is struck by light. “The hundreds of costume studies by Rembrandt might have been done from white plaster models,” notes the great eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and many artists first learned how to draw from plaster casts for the same reason. As Robert Beverly Hale says in Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters: “Once you think of everything as white, you have the knack.”
We see the same principle in architecture as well. In his indispensable book A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander notes that a tapestry of contrasting areas of light and dark can be used to give structure to an otherwise uniform space. Human beings, he points out, are naturally phototrophic, and they’re inclined to move toward and gather in areas of light, but that impulse can only be fulfilled in areas “defined by non-uniformities,” with a great deal of alternating light and dark. He devotes an entire pattern, “Tapestry of Light and Dark,” to the concept, which is persistently violated in so many alienating office buildings and public spaces. In second pattern, “Pools of Light,” Alexander refines it further, noting that uniform illumination—”the sweetheart of the lightning engineers”—destroys the social function of a space, and that the proper use of light, whether it’s a lamp casting an intense spotlight onto a workbench or a restaurant in which each table is given its own circle of brightness, provides plenty of shadow as well:
Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light, which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles to reinforce the social character of the spaces which they form. Remember that you can’t have pools of light without the darker places in between.
And the pattern of light and dark is there to serve the social function of the space, or to tease out its meaning, which ultimately amounts to the same thing. In his chapter titled “Light and Planes,” Hale makes many of the same points that Alexander does. Meaning is created by contrast, and these contrasts aren’t accidents, but conscious choices by the artist or designer. This can often mean doing apparent violence to the superficial appearance of the subject—”It is sometimes valuable,” he writes, “to think of the material you are drawing as made of highly polished aluminum”—in the service of a deeper truth on paper. Hale concludes:
The professional artist is acutely aware of the existence of light and its effect on form. He understands that light can create or destroy form: thus, he must be the creator and destroyer of light.
“The creator and destroyer of light” may seem like a grandiose way of describing what artists do, but it’s fundamentally accurate. Contrast is what allows us to see, even as we strive to depict life and reality as a uniform whole, and it’s only by the careful selection, arrangement, and lighting of the material at hand that its true shape becomes visible.