Learning From Graffiti: Adding a Third Dimension With Light and Shadow

STADT/WAND/KUNST (City/Wall/Art) Every year in the German city of Mannheim, artists are invited to create murals on the sides of buildings, turning gray walls into a public art gallery. https://www.stadt-wand-kunst.de/

Photographs are two dimensional representations of a three dimensional world.  One of a photographers’ principal challenges, then, is to bring a sense of depth into that two dimensional image.

There are a number of ways to do that, from leading lines, to the relative size of objects becoming smaller as they recede into the distance, to having strong foreground, middle and distant objects in your composition.  Perhaps the strongest, though, is through the selective use of light and shadow, dodging and burning.  As Ansel Adams once said, “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”

Those tonal relationships, from bright white to deepest black are, of course, crucial for establishing depth and dimensionality in black and white images.  Eric Kim calls this “the dance between light and dark.”  It’s the reason Adams would spend hours in the darkroom, patiently dodging and burning until his photo looked just right.  But they also play a key role in all types and forms of images.

In the Renaissance, painters used contrasts in lighting and tones as a way of giving a sense of volume, shape and depth to objects in paintings and drawings, a technique called chiaroscuro (Italian for light-dark).  It’s been a mainstay for artists from Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio to Stanley Kubrick and Annie Leibovitz.

We’re so used to seeing the light and shadow in our daily lives that the importance of tonality can be overlooked or underappreciated.  Until, that is, you see a great example in a photograph, painting or graffiti. 

Graffiti?  Absolutely!

Peeta has done a variety of “graffiti walls” that use light and shadow to accentuate line and shape, making drab walls come to life with the illusion of wild architectural embellishments.
Peeta has done a variety of “graffiti walls” that use light and shadow to accentuate line and shape, making drab walls come to life with the illusion of wild architectural embellishments.

Peeta, a “graffiti artist” who is also known as Manuel Di Rita, creates what he calls “anamorphic” works of art, which use visual tricks, particularly light and shadow, to create a three dimensional semblance on an object.  He does it to challenge human perception and points of view, but his works (particularly his murals on buildings) also serve as stunning illustrations of using tonality to create the illusion of depth.

The lines and shapes don’t come to life without the highlights and shadows, which give them a wonderful sense of depth.  With the toning, the buildings seem to jump out at you.

Studying his art, or that of artists like M. C. Esher, can help any photographer better see and appreciate light and shadow while in the field, then effectively optimize them in postproduction.  We can all learn from the masters, be they famous painters, filmmakers, photographers or even graffiti artists.