Project: Working on Different Coloured Grounds – Exercise: Tonal Study on a Dark Ground

25/02/15

Tonal Study on a Dark Ground

Prepare a dark ground in advance… You could choose a much darker tone of the same colour that you used for the last ground, or experiment by working on a different ground colour, for example a deep blue.

Tonal Study on a Dark Ground Acrylic on Board - A3

Tonal Study on a Dark Ground
Acrylic on Board – A3

After my research into chiaroscuro, I was keen to try this and decided to stick with neat Paynes Grey for my ground colour.  The reason for this was, to compare the previous exercise (Tonal Study on a White Ground) with this one like for like.  Again, I wish I had taken work in progress photos to record the process.  I used the same set up as before, although the hand-cream tube may be slightly different in position because I keep using it and forgetting to put it back!  The directional light from the lamp should be very similar to before, however, the secondary light from the window was dull and I started this study later in the afternoon so it got even more so as I worked on.  This exaggerated the lamp light so there was more contrast in tones.

Using a 1″ flat brush I marked out the mid tones roughly, initially allowing the darkest darks to remain as the ground colour. Again I left my lightest lights right to the end and used varying tones to sculpt the shapes both positive and negative.  As I refined my drawing I needed to reinstate some darks here and there.  It also became clear that most of the cast shadows had subtle nuances within them and some were really quite light,  When I was happy with the drawing and everything bar the sharp highlights, I looked carefully for the very brightest, lightest lights, of which there were not as many as I first thought.  These were added with neat white paint. That done I mixed a really light tone but not neat white and added the secondary highlights. Most of the blocking in was made with the 1″ flat, slightly more structure with 3/4″ and 1/2″ flats and the white highlights with a size 2 round. Much happier with the drawing and scale this time!

Consider ways in which you could exploit these effects of extreme contrast in future paintings,

I often work on coloured grounds, although, usually plump for a mid tone.  Using the extreme dark was great fun and really focussed my eye on all shapes, positive, negative, subject and cast shadow. Also, working in negative and positive colour-ways, really allows you to sculpt the objects without worrying too much about the blank, white space you have to fill.  I think this is useful for both simple still life subjects, such as this, to make you see the interest that everything has when light is used to model shapes, all shadows are not dark, all highlights are not brilliant.  Also, when encountering a more complex subject e.g. a full interior, it simplifies the scene by taking it right down to the basic light, mid and dark tones before detail is needed, if indeed it really is.  The use in portraiture is evident when viewing  Rembrandt’s work, it throws attention on the focal point of the face and sculpts its planes and hollows. This technique adds drama and interest, even in a simple still life or as in Edward Hopper’s Rooms by the Sea or Morning Sun, cast shadows on a plain wall.

Rooms by the Sea 1951 Edward Hopper 1882-1967

Rooms by the Sea 1951
Edward Hopper 1882-1967

Morning Sun 1952 Edward Hopper 1882 - 1967

Morning Sun 1952
Edward Hopper 1882 – 1967

 

 

 

 

 

 

Set out all your tonal studies alongside one another and assess how well each of them has succeeded in modelling light and rendering tonal values. Which effects appeal to you most?

Working left to right my assessment of how well each of these studies has succeeded in modelling light:

  1. Each object has been modelled with tonal contrast, however, apart from the one large cast shadow, there is no sense of place and not a lot of difference between areas in direct light and those in reflective light.
  2. This is beginning to work although the composition itself does not exploit the tone and the form is a little lost on the sugar bowl.
  3. This one is the most successful pencil drawing and is the composition chosen for its interest and tonal contrast to develop.  It’s a quick rendition but effective in showing form and placement, although the darks are nowhere near dark enough.
  4. The charcoal is much more effective at gradations of tone and the darks are more solid, with the mid-tones having more subtlety. This also helped in selecting the composition to develop as it was nearer to the variety of tone that could be created with paint.
  5. This study again proves the versatility of the charcoal in what, is still, a quick study. Lifting out the sharper highlights with a hard rubber and layering the darkest darks gives a more dynamic image.
  6. The first painting of the study on a white ground is even more successful than the charcoal and I was pleased with the tonal variations. The realisation again and again that tones rely on the those adjacent and not to be viewed in isolation was evident through the painting process.
  7. The second painting on a very dark ground proved to be a little mind bending at first as I had to work in reverse or negative to begin with. However, this really worked and made me see the gradation in tone not only on the objects in front of me but within my own painting too. Working this way round made my lightest lights really zing, whereas they became a little lost on the previous study. It proved to me that with a white ground, you really have to work harder at the darks to show lightest lights.

It is probably obvious from the above that the effect that appealed to me most is working on a dark ground.  When working on your darkest tone, there is only one way to go, and yet there are many different shades of tone between the extremes.

Technical Difficulties Encountered:

  • Pencil studies are fine for initial workings and preliminary drawings for establishing dark, mid and light tones but subtlety of tones can easily be lost unless it is a full drawing and time is spent with differing grades of pencil.
  • Both charcoal and pencil can be smudged, which is great when it’s deliberate but can be frustrating if not.
  • Working on a white ground provides luminosity, however, it can be difficult to go really dark and therefore, achieve the lightest highlights.

 

Research Point: Artists who used Chiaroscuro Techniques

23/02/15

Chiaroscuro

From the Italian for light or clear (chiaro) and dark or obscure (scuro).  A technique that has been used for centuries by artists to “model” with light and dark: to enhance volume and form, drama and focus. Lighting is always an important factor in rendering the illusion of three dimensions in a two dimensional form, not only in paintings but photography and cinema too, I feel that this is why I am more drawn to dramatically lit black and white photography rather than colour.

Explore the works of some of the artists whose work exemplifies chiaroscuro effects such Tintoretto, Caravaggio and Rubens.

After spending a couple of days pouring over examples of chiaroscuro paintings, I am in awe of the skill of the 17th century artists who instilled such drama and atmosphere in their work, particularly, considering the poor lighting in which they worked.  I know from experience of classes in village halls where lighting is not easily controllable, that, even if you have good/interesting lighting on your subject, you may not be able to see your own canvas clearly.  This throws out tones and colour and can make your work look completely different when viewed elsewhere.  These artists worked by light of a naked flame once daylight had passed, yet they mastered this technique with fantastic dexterity.

The Last Supper Tintoretto - 1594 The illumination in this painting is derived from candle/lamplight and, a technique often used in Baroque religious paintings, of divine light.  A light from an indeterminable source.

The Last Supper 1594
Tintoretto – 1518-1594
The illumination in this painting is derived from candle/lamplight and, a technique often used in Baroque religious paintings, of divine light. A light from an indeterminable source.

 

A different take on the many versions of the Last Supper, and Tintoretto created numerous compositions of the scene.  In this one the focus is on the supporting figures in the foreground, the woman at the barrel with light to the side of her casting a strong shadow across her face and torso.

 

 

 

 

The Crucifixion of St Peter Caravaggio - 1600-1601 Chiaroscuro used to its most dramatic effect.

The Crucifixion of St Peter 1600-1601
Caravaggio – 1571-1610
Chiaroscuro used to its most dramatic effect.

 

This is an absolutely stunning painting. The light is coming from above and slightly from the left, highlighting the plight and pain of St Peter. The composition is highly unusual, with the stresses and strains of hoisting the cross upside down denoting the difference between this and the crucifixion of Christ.  Even though the light source initially seems to bleach out the colours of the focal point, the more you study the figure of St Peter the more colours in the flesh appear to you. The viewer is placed higher than the figures as if looking down on the scene from a place of superiority, which makes it all the more disturbing to me.

 

 

 

The Death Scene of Seneca Rubens - 1614

The Death Scene of Seneca 1614
Rubens – 1577-1640

 

Again, the drama is depicted by the shadowy supporting figures with the light falling on the scene’s focus of Seneca.  I have to admit I was not familiar with the story/myth of Seneca, however, I began reading an account documented in the e-book:

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

 By James Romm

A fascinating read of Ancient Rome and its tribulations, not yet finished but I will continue. A popular story for artist’s depiction.

 

Look also at the candlelit studies of some northern European artists, most especially Rembrandt and Joseph Wright of Derby.

My initial research was purely for artists who use chiaroscuro techniques and I found a good selection of northern European artists from Flemish, to French to English nationalities.  Here are some of the works I particularly liked:

Self Portrait 1929 Rembrandt One of the many self portraits painted throughout his life.  In this painting the artist was around 23 years old and is one I was not familiar with previously.

Self Portrait 1629
Rembrandt 1606-1699
One of the many self portraits painted throughout his life. In this painting the artist was around 23 years old and is one I was not familiar with previously.

 

Self-Portrait, c.1629 (oil on wood) by Rijn, Rembrandt van (1606-69); Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA; The Clowes Fund Collection.  A strong use of chiaroscuro with a three quarters view and the majority of the face in shadow due to the light source and cover from the hat and hair. The clothing is also dark in colour and shade to throw focus on the illuminated section of face.

 

 

 

 

Lucretia Rembrandt 1666 A later example of Rembrandt's work with the light source throwing emphasis on the figure's face.

Lucretia 1666
Rembrandt 1606-1699
A later example of Rembrandt’s work with the light source throwing emphasis on the figure’s face full of resignation to her fate.

 

 

Lucretia, 1666 (oil on canvas) by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-69) Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN, USA, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund.

A thought provoking and sad rendition of this story, unusually told after the fatal wound has been made. Lucretia is here waiting for the inevitable ending.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am grateful to this exercise in making me research the following artists, of which I knew little if anything.  It also shows what an impact Caravaggio had on the art world in his time and ever since.

Below are two examples of Joseph Wright of Derby paintings using light and dark to excellent effect.

The Orrery (A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery) 1766 Joseph Wright of Derby 1734 - 1797 Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England. This painting shows the demonstration of an orrery using the lamp as the light source as if it were the sun. The faces are beautifully up-lit with the foreground in darkness.

The Orrery (A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery) 1766 by Joseph Wright of Derby 1734 – 1797. Located in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England. This painting shows the demonstration of an orrery using the lamp as the light source as if it were the sun. The faces are beautifully up-lit with the foreground in darkness.

Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight (Dressing the Kitten) - 1768-1770 by Joseph Wright of Derby, located in Kenwood House, London.  I have seen this painting before, and although it is a little "twee" for my taste, chiaroscuro effect is superb.

Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight (Dressing the Kitten) – 1768-1770 by Joseph Wright of Derby, located in Kenwood House, London. I have seen this painting before, and although it is a little “twee” for my taste, the chiaroscuro effect is superb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

two men examining a painting by candlelight - gottfried schalken

Artist and Model Looking at an Ancient Statue by Lamplight – 1675-1680 by Gottfried Schalken 1643 – 1706, in a Private Collection.

 

 

 

 

Gottfried Schalken was known as one of the Fijnschilders or Fine Painters in the Dutch Baroque style that made, as well as everyday life, candlelit nocturnal paintings.

 

 

 

 

The Drinker by Dirk Van Baburen (1570/90-1623/4).  Located in the Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris. A less obvious use of chiaroscuro with a mid tone background, however, the face is highly modelled with light and dark with a strong light source from the front, right.

The Drinker by Dirk Van Baburen (1570/90-1623/4). Located in the Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris. A less obvious use of chiaroscuro with a mid tone background, however, the face is highly modelled with light and dark with a strong light source from the front left.

The Artist at Work by Gerrit Van Honthorst 1592-1656.  Located in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

The Artist at Work by Gerrit Van Honthorst 1592-1656. Located in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome. A more limited palette than many of the these examples which may be more realistic as colour may have been drained by the lack of light other than a simple candle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The below are two French artists who have created some wonderful paintings using chiaroscuro.

The Appearance of an Angel to St Joseph (The Dream of St Joseph) 1652 by Georges de la Tour 1593-1652. Located in  Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France. A beautiful, if slightly ambiguous, painting. This angel has no obvious holy accoutrements and is clearly female - most angels are rendered as male.  However, the candlelight illuminates the child's face and warmth of her hair colour along with Joseph's robes and the shadows are soft and soothing. I particularly like the treatment of the book's pages hinting at the delicacy of the the paper with light coming through.

The Appearance of an Angel to St Joseph (The Dream of St Joseph) 1652 by Georges de la Tour 1593-1652. Located in Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France. A beautiful, if slightly ambiguous, painting. This angel has no obvious holy accoutrements and is clearly female – most angels are rendered as male. However, the candlelight illuminates the child’s face and warmth of her hair colour along with Joseph’s robes and the shadows are soft and soothing. I particularly like the treatment of the book’s pages hinting at the delicacy of the the paper with light coming through.

 

Allegory of Vanity by Trophome Bigot 1650-1699, located in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome.  This looks to be a classic example of chiaroscuro technique with strong candlelight on the face and front of the figure. It is also full of symbolism, the skull, the mirror in darkness and I'm sure the object in the right foreground - although I can't for the life of me make out what it is - maybe someone can tell me?

Allegory of Vanity by Trophime Bigot 1650-1699, located in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome. This looks to be a classic example of chiaroscuro technique with strong candlelight on the face and front of the figure. It is also full of symbolism, the skull, the mirror in darkness and I’m sure the object in the right foreground – although I can’t for the life of me make out what it is – maybe someone can tell me?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I’ve taken away from this is that there is no light without dark and vice versa.  Whichever effect you want to create: drama, vibrancy, softness or a pure realistic rendering, the modelling of light and dark is a key element in representational painting.

Acknowledgments:
All research via a combination of Bridgeman Education and Wikipedia sites, with photographs being downloadable due to editorial usage and not for commercial gain.