In Erin Bow’s marvelous and magical PLAIN KATE, young Kate sells her shadow to a sorcerer in exchange for the means to escape the town bent on destroying her, only to find that life without a shadow is even more dangerous. It turns out in Kate’s world, owning a shadow is essential to staying alive—it is what separates the living from the dead.
I’ve started noticing shadows a lot more when I’m out wandering. The shadow of a leafing plum tree with the dappled movement of foliage dancing above the slanted trunk. The triangular shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid cast at sunset against a nearby skyscraper. The shadows of clouds traveling across the Bay like amorphous whales. My own shadow growing and shrinking and growing again as the hours of the day pass. Which reminds me of a story I once heard about a small boy, who, when his aunt commented on how big he had gotten, answered with, “Oh, but I’m much bigger than this!”
I love the particular silence of shadows and the fact that they exist but leave no permanent mark, have no capacity for memory. Shadows cast by moonlight, by streetlight, are the most mysterious. And don’t forget that we sleep in the earth’s shadow, more commonly known as night.
When I first started to seriously study drawing and learned the essence of shadow for creating an impression of realism, I felt like a window opened. I began looking at everything completely differently. Facial features suddenly rearranged themselves into tonal patterns of light and dark. Shadow is what gives a solid form dimension—it grounds an object or a person to the earth. Without it, we visually float.
Psychologists talk about our shadow selves—the interior shadow where we conceal the darker parts of our personalities. Often these shadows are not the aspects of ourselves that we’re especially proud of. They are the flaws we strive to overcome. But try creating a fictional character without them, and what you have is an unrealistic, one-dimensional character. It turns out, even fictional characters need shadows to bring them to life.