A Trick of the Light

This column marks the beginning of my 5th year of ArtBeat. I am grateful to the Fernie Fix for the opportunity to share my passion, my craft, my ideas, and often my strong opinion about art, especially where it bleeds into community, relationships, and care for the planet. I sometimes end up wading through heavy things, which can be tiring. This month, I’ll promise I’ll be keeping it light—I think we all need a little bit of light.

The master painters of the Renaissance brought many things to the practice of art that we continue to use, among them are mathematical perspective, proportion, foreshortening, and chiaroscuro. In the 19th century the expressionists bent many of those rules—Van Gogh’s swirling brilliance for example. In the 20th century artists like Dali and Picasso found ways of unshackling us from them completely. Only one rule remained largely untouched: chiaroscuro.* 

If you can picture Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, you can picture chiaroscuro. This Italian word literally means ‘light-dark.’ When an artist uses dramatic lighting to create a sense of depth, story, and space—that’s chiaroscuro. Photographers often call it tonal range. The use of contrast between dark darks and light lights remains one of the most effective tools for creating successful works regardless of style or medium. 

When I teach a workshop, whether it’s painting or printmaking, one of the first things I tell my students is to decide where the light is coming from and to draw an arrow on the paper or canvas so they don’t forget. Our brains are quite amazing at using light to distinguish layers and shapes in the world around us, and our ability to harness that in a painting can go a long way to truly selling a composition to our viewer. For me, the last step in finishing a painting often involves adding dabs of almost-black in the shadows and cutting the highlights and edges with almost-white to really emphasize that contrast.

I’ve personally never been interested in realism. Cameras are really good at capturing the world around us just as it is, and my chosen mediums are so good at expressing emotion, that they feel to me like a more interesting pursuit. I often paint landscapes, or carve linocuts of local scenes, but I try to chase the feeling behind those places rather than the reality. Colours are flipped on their head, trees are deleted or added, mountains moved out of the way, perspective shifted—but the lighting remains. Without understanding how the light clarifies the scene around me, I can’t paint convincingly. Without understanding how a tree is backlit or how it glints off the water or casts a shadow in the crag of a rock, my work stays flat and uninspiring. 

There are of course artists, like Rothko’s abstract blocks of colour, that dispose of any kind of directional light altogether. One could argue, however, that he plays with subtle luminescence in a way that is intended to imply an internal light source and continues to use contrast in a way that gives us a sense of place. If you look at his body of work, you will see that he didn’t start with abstracts. In the late 1930s he painted flattened but more traditional streetscapes. In the early 40’s his work had evolved into Salvador Dali-like surrealist lines and shapes. By 1947 it was all about soft-edge blocks of colour stacked simply on one another, glowing like a backlit road sign.  

The point is that this trick of the light is still present, if much more subtle. To understand chiaroscuro at that level he had to paint his way through the world for decades before he could simplify it successfully. When it comes to using light in our work, there are indeed ways of bending the rules, and occasionally shattering them altogether. Still, It’s worth exploring the rules rigorously so that when we do, we can break them with some tact and some grace. A successful composition isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of a landscape, but it must be convincing. Chiaroscuro is a big part of making it so.

*pronounced: kee-AR-ə-SKOOR-oh