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Friday, October 28, 2011

And There Was Light

Chiaroscuro.  It's pronounced key-air-row-skew-row, but what does it mean?

Artists who exercise the chiaroscuro principle play with what happens when a unique light strikes an image.  Parts of the image seem to leap forth into the light while others recede into shadow,  like in this painting by Mary Whyte.

 "Before There Were Wings"   Watercolor    Mary Whyte
This term itself came out of Italy and goes as far back as the early 1400's.  The word literally means light-dark and most accurately describes how a particular light-and-shadow influences the way we see images.

So chiaroscuro relates specifically to illumination and how an artist translate it into a painting or drawing.

Chiaroscuro is as effective in a monochromatic (single color) painting as in one using multiple colors.  This monochromatic 17th century painting by George de la Tour receives its illumination from a candle.

"St. Joseph"  George de la Tour  circa 1642    

But this 21st century multi-colored still life by Qiang Huang receives illumination from a narrow light source outside the painting.

Qiang Huang          Oil Demo
Click on image for larger view

Both are in chiaroscuro.  In both it is the direction and strength of the light that give meaning to the content of the painting.

Our language is organic.  Terms originate somewhere in time then their definitions evolve as we humans become  conscious of their mechanics.  Until the 21st century, art history authorities kept to a close-knit definition of chiaroscuro, limiting it to figurative and still life forms and a single light source.  More modern understandings of the concept include the total interplay of light and shadow, no matter what the subject is.

Today we can say that Jennifer McChristian's "Marche aux Puces" is in chiaroscuro...

Marche aux Puces     Oil   Jennifer McChristian

...or that Pat Weaver's watercolor of a cow is in chiaroscura...

Watercolor    Pat Weaver
...just as accurately as we can say that Rembrandt's "Man in a Golden Helmet" is in chiaroscuro.

"Man in a Golden Helmet"   c. 1650   Rembrandt van Rijn

When I was a student in the sixties, chiaroscuro was on moth balls.  It was an antiquated term associated with works of the past, delegated to the pages of stuffy art history books whose authors guarded its definition as if it were untouchable.  Today, it is a vibrant tool capable of bringing life to a painting.

Sometimes we do well to jar from the annals their embedded notions and ask ourselves anew:  what does this really mean?


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