Disney's Pool of Light and Background Theory

Something I’ve been reading up on recently in my quest to provide backgrounds for my drawings is Disney’s focus on pools of light in backgrounds, the idea being that backgrounds, while important and containing valuable information, are set pieces. A background on its own isn’t really complete - it’s a stage without actors. The pool of light refers to the area that is supposed to catch the viewer’s attention, it’s where most of the action in the scene will take place and where the majority of the important information for the viewer is located. Essentially, to continue the theater stage metaphor, it’s the spotlight of your composition.

Cinderella has some really, really excellent examples of this in its background paintings:

These are some more blatant examples, but will work for what I wish to talk about, in that this theory comes down to two things: color and shape.


The pool of light deals not just with making an area in the scene brighter or lighter than another, it focuses on contrasts. While dark/light is part of this, there’s also the contrasts of tone, hue, and saturation. In Cinderella’s palette, this is consistently different warm grays used as the light, while dark blues are used as the shadow. When viewed on a color wheel, the colors are often near-complementary, but not exactly:

What’s important to take away from this is that these colors blend into every object, which allows the whole composition to appear consistent. 

Of course, the shadows/hilights don’t have to be the traditional warm light/cool shadows. This is just what the example uses.


Secondly, and just as important, is the shape of the light itself - because it shows exactly where the character will be moving, and what we should be focusing on. Even when not in animation, this is surprisingly effective. For example, look at the two screenshots of the stairs - would you expect Cinderella to go down the stairs, or across towards the rafters? Would she bring the breakfast up the stairs, or across the hall?

What’s fascinating is that this is absolutely everywhere in old Disney movies and shorts. Literally every background uses this concept. It’s not something you really think about while viewing the film, but as an artist, the ideas employed by these movies are incredibly useful.

(All screencaps used in this post are from disneyscreencaps, which is also a great place to research this further.)

The idea put forward in this article is so smart and elegant it makes my brain fizz. Pulling lines off a profile to draw a front-on view of a face with the same proportions is something that I think every artist has done at least a few times… but! 

If you pull the lines out at an angle, down or up, you can accurately derive the proportions for low and high view shots. Brilliant.

Art has become too ironical and unintelligible for its own communicative good: It only speaks to those in the esoteric know – those willing to play the art game. Narcissistically fetishized, advanced art loses relational purpose. Caught up in itself, it forgets the audience, which is expected to accept it on its own terms, uncritically: Whatever common ground existed between advanced art and the audience collapses. Holding up a mirror to itself rather than to the audience – as art has done since Aristotle noted the cathartic effect of the insight it afforded – art loses its audience. Thus, advanced art loses its foundation in human experience.
—  Taken from A Critical History of 20th-Century Art by Donald Kuspit.

“Judith Slaying Holofernes” - Artemisia Gentileschi

I have been waiting to write about this painting.  Clearly Baroque has and will forever be my favorite movement. Dat Side-lighting.  But to be earnest, I cried at this painting.  It finally is in town for the first time in its existence.  The artist herself was raped and this is by far the most vengeful and female dominant version of this tale.  Most paintings, in contrast - Caravaggio for example - the women shy away from the blood, which tends to be more minimum.  They aren’t exerting force.  Here, we see the two women immersed in the act, almost to the point of bloodlust.  She grips at Holofernes’ hair with total force and control.  It is easy to project the personal experience of Artemisia’s young rape onto this painting as the artist reaping revenge in the best way.  These theories are just starting to form, however.  As an understudy of Caravaggio, Artemisia has been dismissed until the 1970s by the male-centric academia as just a ‘copy’ of her mentors.  I am so happy to finally see her growing recognition and appreciation.  Female Renaissance artists are few and far between so this one deserves her new found, travelling fame.

Art does not reside in the artwork alone, nor in the activity of the artist alone, but is understood as a field of psychic probability, highly entropic, in which the viewer is actively involved, not in an act of closure in the sense of completing a discrete message from the artist (a passive process) but by interrogating and interacting with the system “artwork” to generate meaning. This field provides for transactions to take place between the psychic system “artist” and the psychic system “viewer”, where both are, to use Umberto Eco’s phrase, “gambling on the possibility of semiosis”.
—  Roy Ascott, Towards a Field Theory for Postmodernist Art (1980)

When I was 17 I used to think that the subway danced for me.

Old train cars on the C line rocked so violently that if I looked at the bodies in the car without meaning, everyone would appear to move together as if in a synchronized dance.

And if I listened without listening, I’d hear the clanking sound of wheels to rail not as noise but as percussive rhythm. It was the soundtrack to the subway dance.

And in my head, I imagined that the train was (perhaps) sentient, and had figured out a way to amuse itself by enlisting every ‘body’ in an unwitting dance number. Anybody who stepped back and unfocused their attention long enough would realize what was going on and would be treated to the same joy.

And I started paying attention to the rest of the city in this way: the sway of the willow trees in Union Square Park, the horns of yellow cabs in traffic, the march of shoes in Penn Station.

I felt like I had unlocked something amazing but couldn’t really tell anyone about it as I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I had experienced.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the 1913 Futurist manifesto The Art of Noises by Luigi Russolo. In it Russolo argues that the future of music isn’t in working with musical instruments of the past but in realizing that there is music to be found in the noises of everyday life. 

And while The Art of Noises doesn’t quite capture the transcendental spirit I felt in discovering “what’s already there”, it does get pretty damn close:

To convince ourselves of the amazing variety of noises, it is enough to think of the rumble of thunder, the whistle of the wind, the roar of a waterfall, the gurgling of a brook, the rustling of leaves, the clatter of a trotting horse as it draws into the distance, the lurching jolts of a cart on pavings, and of the generous, solemn, white breathing of a nocturnal city; of all the noises made by wild and domestic animals, and of all those that can be made by the mouth of man without resorting to speaking or singing.

Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes, and we will get enjoyment from distinguishing the eddying of water, air and gas in metal pipes, the grumbling of noises that breathe and pulse with indisputable animality, the palpitation of valves, the coming and going of pistons, the howl of mechanical saws, the jolting of a tram on its rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of curtains and flags. We enjoy creating mental orchestrations of the crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub and shuffling of crowds, the variety of din, from stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning wheels, printing works, electric power stations and underground railways.

Art theory:

Painting Characters: and wtf is an Underpainting; Stealing techniques from more old people who have already worked things out for us (again) ; VerdaccioGrisaille, and Imprimatura


Keep in mind, and hold this as a disclaimer, but this is how I work, and before you get into character work, understand that everyone works in their own way and has their own style habits, body shape preferences and more so take everything with a grain of salt, and apply where needed!

Keep reading

My friend sent me this quote and I can’t stop thinking about it.
“The job of the photographer, in my view, is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to be coherent about intuition and hope. (…) If the proper goal of art is, as I now believe, Beauty, the Beauty that concerns me is that of form. Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life. (…) Why is form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps up meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that life is therefore without meaning.”
- Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography (1981)