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.)

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)

anonymous asked:

Can you recommend any books on Art theory and Art criticism?

Recommendations based on what I have read, in part or in whole:

  • The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology by Donald Preziosi. It’s basically a greatest hits of writing about art, going back as far as Plato. It includes everything from discussions of art itself to philosophy, including works by Judith Butler and Aby Warburg. It’s a great launching point, and I use it as a reference frequently.
  • Painting & Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy by Michael Baxandall. The book travels through Renaissance art. Baxandall provides a very insightful social history of Italian Renaissance painting in a style influenced by Marx and others. It’s incredibly detailed, very rich, and also very short.
  • The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson. I don’t know where to begin, because this book is very important to me personally. I will say, however, that if you’re looking for a fabulously written book on art, this is the one. Nelson discusses cruelty and violence in contemporary art and culture. It’s an inventive and perceptive study.
  • On Photography by Susan Sontag. Probably the most famous, most significant study of photography ever written. Sontag really shines as a critic, touching a variety of different photographic subjects in the post-Vietnam cultural climate. There are no footnotes, but it’s clear that the essay are written in the wake of French critical theorist. 
  • Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints by Joan Acocella. Acocella, who writes for the New Yorker, is an expert on dance and literature. She’s received a Guggenheim Fellowship, along with many other awards. The book collects thirty essays, some original, most published in the New Yorker. It’s really about the lives and careers of artists, at the end of the day. Acocella is an interesting writer, and the way she does biography is really smart. There are essays on Bob Fosse, Mikhail Baryshnikov (remember Petrovsky from Sex and the City), Susan Sontag, and Martha Graham, among others, as well as two essays on Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc. 
  • Modern Artists on Art by Robert L. Herbert. Here is another anthology. This one is a collection of manifestos, theoretical pursuits, and credos written by modern artists, from Gleizes and Metzinger to Paul Klee. The writings range from 1912 to 1941. It’s a great reference, and it connects you to the way artists think about their work. They were very…ideological back in the day.
  • Mythologies by Roland Barthes. How do contemporary images produce meaning? How are these messages constructed? These are the basic questions behind Barthes’ Mythologies, which is a really great analysis of images that is especially relevant for art. Barthes sees political and social ideologies behind the way images are presented to us, but his work can of course be used to enrich how one looks at art.
  • Flesh of My Flesh by Kaja Silverman. It’s funny, because this book literally just came in the mail, as a birthday present from a good friend. I’ve been waiting to get my hands on this book—by one of my professors—for a long time. The book interrogates the humanist attention to originality and uniqueness, proposing resemblance, connectedness, and analogy as an alternative. Silverman explores a breadth of different subjects. I read her essay on Gerard Richter in her class this past semester, and it was honestly…so incredible.
  • Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America by Huey Copeland. Copeland’s book is an investigation into the way the legacy of slavery has defined blackness in American culture and the way that legacy is filtered through contemporary art. I’ve read two of the book’s chapters, and they’re incredibly rich as introductions to contemporary black art. Aside from that, they really give a great way to go deeper in our understandings of race. There’s a lot of discourse about race that’s educative and vital, but I do think it’s important that people be able to discuss it from their own perspective, after having encountered a text like Copeland’s.
  • The Ways of Seeing by John Berger. I think this book is very interesting, and it has a cult status in a lot of circles. It’s certainly one of the most popular introductions into a study of visual culture. One of its issues is its simplicity, which can sometimes become problematic (like, methodologically, I think). Nevertheless, the ideas are still really fresh and relevant, and it’s easy to read. 
  • Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. Another book by one of the professors, Seeing the Unspeakable defends the Kara Walker’s art and contextualizes it historically. She draws from a lot of different dimensions of culture to give Walker’s work a historical significance. 
  • Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag. Sontag’s thesis is really novel and important for thinking about art. The goal shouldn’t be to “interpret” or “unlock” meaning but rather to engage art and literature in a more open, dialogical way. But that’s only one essay. The book is packed with many more very influential essays, including “Notes on Camp” and “On Style.”

Books I want to read:

  • Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag 
  • Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics by Jose Esteban Munoz 
  • Aberrations in Black: Towards a Queer of Color Critique by Roderick A. Ferguson 
  • Other Criteria by Leo Steinberg
  • A House Divided by Anne Wagner
  • Queer Beauty by Whitney Davis

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