A Light in the Dark
International Artist|August - September 2021
Using a black underpainting, Jed Dorsey shares the advantages and joys of working from dark to light
By Jed Dorsey

Skyfall, acrylic, 12 x 16 (30 x 40 cm)

I used a gray-toned canvas for this and layered everything over a gradiated sunburst using a lot of negative painting.

About 20 years ago, I finished the first painting I remember really loving. Having just discovered acrylic paints, I was in a workshop with Mike Svob trying to understand this new medium. My background was in watercolor, so being able to paint light over dark was totally new to me. And the day that I painted my first self-described “good” painting I had started it on a canvas that was completely black.

As I look back on that day, I realize that the success of that painting was a combination of a few things. First, it was the last day of the workshop, and I think Mike’s great instruction had finally begun to sink in. Second, I got lucky and produced something that was beyond my experience and skill at that time. I’ve come to think of those types of paintings as gifts. They thrill us and encourage us to continue moving forward in our personal artistic journey.

So, my first “successful” painting was accomplished on a black canvas. And while it wasn’t necessarily the reason, there was a mental connection made. To this day, painting on a dark canvas is still fun for me. Here are a few reasons: I can control where the light comes from. If I start with a light-toned canvas, I need to make sure I cover those areas I don’t want to “shine.” When I paint on a dark canvas, I am intentionally putting in the light.

I often do my “drawing” with red or orange paint. This provides some vibrancy to the underpainting and is usually around the subject matter. The colorful drawing usually shows up at the end of the painting and adds interest.

It is easy for me to work in layers. I start with my darker colors usually and work toward the highlights. I also anticipate using multiple coats to bring out those lightest values. This process of layering and building toward the highlights is fun for me. I see the values easier. For whatever reason, it’s easier for me to recognize the value of the colors I use when they are against a dark background than a white or light-toned background.

But there’s another reason why I love painting on a dark canvas, and it is more personal to my story. There was a time when I was stuck in addiction. My life was dark, and I felt hopeless. It felt like a black canvas. And one day I found myself painting in my studio alone. I had hurt the people closest to me. I had no one to talk to. So, I painted. And I prayed. And it was there in that dark moment that I felt color and light begin to come back into my life.

My life is different now. I have experienced a lot of healing. I have purpose and joy in my life. So, painting on a dark canvas reminds me of hope. It reminds me that I’m not alone. It reminds me that there is a great artist who can create beauty—even in a life that is dark and empty. And in art, it is a well-known truth that the contrast of light and dark is what makes the best paintings shine. As the more popular than ever Bob Ross said, “You need the dark in order to show the light.”

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