A frame around a drawing or print in effect creates a window through which we look. However when looking at vignettes; the edge of the image is more like a meeting between the land and the sea and this creates an altogether different sensation. Its feels as if the image is much more self-contained; it unpicks its form out of the very paper it sits on. What do I mean by this? In a vignette the paper is of course carrying the drawing or print as it would do in any other case, however because the edges of the image are defined by the artist’s choice of certain forms, (the texture of leaves at the top of a tree or some lines representing water), these forms are the boundary or edge of the vignette world. Because this boundary is a broken edge, the paper appears to integrate totally into the image, it is as if the image is like a landmass in a map set into a sea of paper. The rivers of the landmass eventually become the sea, in a vignette’s case the white in the image, eventually becomes the white of the paper.
I realise this is always the case in both drawings and prints, the white is the paper surface, but in a vignette this seems to be so much more clear.
I first came across Tom Lubbock writing about this in a collection of his writings on drawings, ‘English Graphic’. He writes, “A framed image depicts a section of the world…it extends indefinitely off picture. Not so the vignette…Its image is a contained environment like a desert island or a snow dome.”
I think this image below by the great English vignette specialist Thomas Bewick perfectly sums up what Lubbock was talking about.
In this miniature world the trees frame and cut the image out from what would be sky, the lines of water abruptly stop on the right and the clods of earth texture define the bottom and left edges. Beyond these edges all is paper. The man peeing against an old wall is lost in a contemplation of himself, simultaneously watching his shadow and his own pee, his insides emptying out and his outsides flattening out. The white of the wall that holds his shadow is of course the paper on which sits the drawing, it is though a drawing within a drawing. The man will never stop peeing, his shadow will not move as the sun goes down, this world is frozen in its own snow dome.
There is an apocryphal myth about the first portrait, it was supposed to have been a filled in shadow by the Corinthian maid Dibutade, who outlined her departing lover's shadow on the wall to preserve his image whilst he was away. The very first drawn figurative images may well have been made this way.
I seem to have drifted off to the world of the shadow rather than the vignette, but they are in fact very close relatives. Kara Walker makes much use of both, the connection being the silhouette. The edges of the silhouette can be read in a similar way to the edges of the vignette, my musing on Bewick’s image being in effect that the vignette is like a cut-out and so is the man’s shadow. Shadows are very powerful and you have to be quite clear as to how you cast them if they are to be recognizable. This clarity leads to a powerful simplification of form, therefore an artist working in this way has to begin to deal with essences.
As always there is a vast amount of information out there about these issues.
Gromrich, E (1995) Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art London: National Gallery
Stoichita, V (1997) Short history of the shadow London: Reaktion
Casati, R (2004) Shadows: Unlocking Their Secrets, from Plato to Our Time London: Vintage
Rutherford, E (2009) Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow New York: Rizzoli
Lubbock, T (2012) English Graphic London: Frances Lincoln
Click here for an interview with Victor I. Stoichita the writer of ‘A short history of the shadow’ and click here for more information on the history of the silhouette.