Shadows and Fog

Just for fun, on this day of the Oscars, we’ll make the connection between the movies and painting when discussing the important technique of chiaroscuro—definition: a pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color (line or subject). From the Italian— chiaro-clear, light + oscuro-obscure, dark.

Art historian Anne Hollander points out that cinema descends from a long line of paintings that demand to be “watched” rather than perceived.   Mark Rothko says just that about his work—it must be “watched” in order for the surface to quicken and for its arms to reach around and envelop you in the experience of light and dark and subtle value shifts.

Painters began working at this as early as the mid-fifteenth century.  Hollander describes artists in her book, Moving Pictures, whose aim was to heighten the importance of their subject by intensifying “the optical experience, rather than formal ideas.  This pictorial tradition…(sic) depended on using the mystery of surface to express the mystery of basic meaning.”  She talks about “the instability of sight…(sic) in the phenomena to reflect the uncertain movement of consciousness…The moving camera took up this same task since its work is done wholly by light….. but the dramatic formulas had already been provided by the painters who had  worked them out before.  Drama is guaranteed by using optical experience to stand for psychological experience, to mirror and engage the viewers’ soul rather than to gratify his conscious understanding.” (Read more: http://books.google.com/books?id=TrsyCfaA-8kC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false )

The most familiar among the list of those early “magicians” are: Rembrandt, Vermeer and probably most notably, Caravaggio – http://www.caravaggio-foundation.org/ .  (All referenced by Rothko as I’m sure you’ve heard or will hear in “Red”.) These painters relied on the use of chiaroscuro to create an inner light and evoke a sense of mystery.

Chiaroscuro is created by employing many layers of glaze to create a depth of surface.  This week we will dabble with thin veils of color over color to build a surface that emanates its own light.  You can do this on new paper or over old paintings that have, or can be made to have, good structure.  It takes patience and dry time so you might only have a surface when you are done and little else.  I have lots of glaze left from painting the Rothko’s but they are mostly red.  I will demonstrate during the class.  Be sure to have your own glazing medium too as undoubtedly there will be a call for a glaze I don’t have.

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