Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Drawing as idea and process

Football manager's drawing, trying to explain a move to the team

Communicating an idea to people through drawing is not just the province of artists. It's interesting to compare the work of an anonymous football coach above and the work of Janet Cohen below, who has spent many years responding to baseball plays and drawing them. Cohen was one of the artists chosen for the exhibition, 'Drawing as idea and process' and many of the artists in the show used ways of drawing that you might in the past have associated with other professions or which follow rules that can at times appear very non expressive, but which when followed reveal essential things about how we break down experiences in order to make sense of them.

Janet Cohen

Janet Cohen reveals how the diagram can capture meaning just as much as a photograph or an illustrative drawing of a situation can. How many times have we all had to sit and listen as an aficionado of a game has told stories of how a particular move was made or how a sequence of events led up to a goal or clever home run?  The diagram tells it all, where the protagonists stood and how they were related to each other and how events unfolded in space. It tells us who moved and where to and reveals so much more than a simple photographic snapshot would. The drawing by an anonymous football coach is interesting in that it adds into the situation little details that I presume are to make it easier for the players to understand what is demanded of them. The tiny corner flags drawn in the top corners make us aware of what it is we are looking at, and the badly drawn half circle at the bottom of the drawing signals that this is a drawing of only half the pitch. We can only guess what the dashed line represents over on the right of the drawing, but it feels as if something is being excluded or kept to one side. We see these types of drawings now on TV, but usually now rendered using a computer drawing program, and often as demonstrations as to what actually happened, as to how players moved in relation to a significant event in a match.
Games are often thought of as practice for war and diagrams of troop movements in relation to fought over territory are sometimes not dissimilar to those used to visualise moves in a football match.

Diagram of the battle of Waterloo

The artist Tiffany Chung has used her awareness of these issues in her work, several times, from the following of changing boundaries during an actual war, as in her work for the 2015 Venice Biennale to her more sociological investigations into how people cross boundaries as they become more urbanized, which she has been exploring more recently. Once again it is process, in this instance one driven by mapping processes that gives form to her ideas.

Tiffany Chung

Diagrams and maps are not the only formats that artists can use when developing a process with which to drive their work. Hadi Tabatabai has for the last 15 years been cutting and drawing and composing delicate, meticulously executed pattern-based works in mixed media. Many of his images explore the form of the line as a physical space; he states, “I view the ‘line’ as empty space without an agenda or allegiance.”  The materials he uses constantly change but his process of repetition and layering in order to gradually fill or occupy a surface remains constant throughout.

Detail of threads used to draw lines across a canvas

Hadi Tabatabai: Detail of the artist at work

What is interesting about Tabatabai's approach is his attention to detail, look at how the threads are spaced around the edge of his canvas or how meticulous he is when cutting out small squares of card. Sometimes a process is inseparable from the crafting that is needed for its execution.  

Sol Lewitt

The use of seriality as a strategy in art was first seen in the work of artists such as Sol Lewitt and Don Judd but it is not always about tight adherence to mathematical permutations. Martin Noël's work was in many ways an exploration of processes of seriality, but he was able to also introduce a deep emotional engagement into his approach.

Martin Noël

As the coloured backgrounds become more intense, you sense the growing emotional intensity behind Noël's work. His lines are exploratory of the surface area, but not as geometric measuring devices. His lines are emotional feeling indicators, they reach out into the various fields of colour and reveal the uncertainty of Noël's hand. Lines reach across the void, they touch and they tentatively exist, if only for a moment in their chosen field of colour. When you see several of Noël's images in a row you begin to try and predict where the lines should go next. It reminded me of those tests you can take to see whether or not you have approaching dementia or Alzheimer`s, tests that check whether or not you can predict the next pattern after looking at several previous layouts.

I find it interesting that the prediction of seriality is as much a test of I.Q. or the growing loss of it, as it is a strategy for the construction of processes for making art. Drawing of course is operating as a way for both artists and the medical profession to test out certain ways of thinking and I would suggest that it is this issue that lies at the centre of what a serial process is about. If this, then this, if a move is made in this direction, the next move ought to be this... from playing chess to following the rules of logic, such as 'for all propositions p, it is impossible for both p and not p to be true', or thinking of an art idea as an argument, which is itself a sequence of statements.
Robert Ryman is an excellent artist to look at when you want to explore how imposing restrictions on work can help generate ideas.  
As well as working to his own detailed instructions when developing ideas for paintings and drawings, he has also developed instructions for installations. He will even detail whether or not some works are fastened to the wall with nails or screws, or with a particular sort of glue or drawing pin. Ryman is very aware of how the display of a work changes the viewer experience.

Robert Ryman

Imposing restrictions within which to work often pays off because it forces you to become inventive. A process can therefore be seen as a type of restriction within which to work and if so, you can see it as a generative thing, a way of producing something out of nothing. This is something mathematicians are aware of, perhaps the mathematics that can visualise a quantum flux within a vacuum are very similar in intent to the ideas surrounding decisions by an artist who has imposed a rigid system on him or herself. If process is the idea, then what will be seen to be done will be its unravelling, be this an initial quantum flux or a decision to make a mark here rather than there, after that everything will be subject to the laws of entropy.

Try and use the time of the Xmas break to think about the possibilities that process brings into being. Even the process of putting Christmas lists together or thinking about new menus can be reused as art, nothing is ever without interest. Happy holidays x.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Austin Wright: Emerging Forms

Austin Wright

The exhibition, 'Austin Wright: Emerging Forms' is on at the moment at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery. For those of you interested in sculptor's drawings this is a very interesting exhibition as it includes several of his working drawings as well as a selection of his early drawings that point to his emerging interest in the depiction of three dimensional form. 

Early drawings

I must apologise for the poor quality of the images but all the drawings were under glass and I couldn't find a position where either myself or the gallery spotlights weren't reflected in the glass. Even so do go and look at the original drawings. I was particularly taken with the drawings of everyday life just after the war. His figures have a monumentality and grandeur about them, all reduced to essentials and seen as emerging sculptural forms even before he was working as a sculptor. His more linear later sculptures may be of interest to those of you thinking about making three dimensional linear drawings, as in a post David Smith context, but all of you should be interested in his drawings that attempt to sum up groups of figures as simple masses. 

Drawings for hanging sculptures

Details of drawings dealing with groups of figures

The working drawings of sculptors are always interesting as they reveal how the process of thinking about form progresses. In Wright's case he is always interested in human beings as a communal animal. Very rarely do you see a single figure, what he is searching for is that composite form that suggests the interaction of small groups of people, either of family or friends, people that know each other well and who are prepared to invade each other's space. The quick sketches that I have tried to photograph (sorry about the reflections folks) were for myself really moving. He was trying to visualise something very important about the human condition, our need for supportive touching and feeling and being around others; suggesting that an isolated figure is in some ways less human. 
These small exhibitions tracing the history of recent Modernist art practices are nearly always rewarding, you just have to be receptive and open to ideas that sometimes feel old fashioned or not contemporary and in doing this I think you become able to appreciate a much wider range of art works and above all educate your eyes to see. 

When I was young it never occurred to me that I would at some time in the future be writing a sentence that suggested that Modernism was old fashioned. However in 7 years time it will be 100 years since the original publication of Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook. It was a central text in relation to my own art education, but already nearly 40 years old when I first encountered it as a teenager at school in Dudley. Wright was born in 1911 and Modernism would have been the dominant mode of expression throughout Western Europe for most of his working life. But times have changed and yet in some ways they haven't. I'm reading the Rev. J. G. Wood's 'Insects at Home' a comprehensively illustrated book published in 1871. The preface states this; "The reader may probably notice that these figures of insects are but slightly shaded, and in many cases are little but outline. This is intentional, and the shading is omitted in order that the reader may supply its place by colour." The text goes on to recommend mixing ox-gall in with the colours so as to neutralise the oily lines of the printer's ink. There is something of the Modernist in this, a democracy of engagement, that suggested the reader become engaged in a process that would lead to the fixing of the insects firmly in the mind of the reader. Klee encouraged the reader to take a line for a walk, the Rev. Wood encourages us to colour in the wood engravings in his book. Art becomes something that we can all do, and Modernism released us from the need for academic training, in France the Salon de Refusés had allowed non trained artists to feel as if they could produce work of equal significance to their Academy trained peers. But strangely the art schools that were set up as models of the Bauhaus, eventually became as academic as the old academies. Klee's teachings becoming central to the idea of a Modernist art education, but now perhaps we need a new Salon de Refusés, another new start, a fresh Modernism or even a new academy if that's not a contradiction in terms. If so what would we teach? Maybe the arts of bioengineering, robotics, and nano-technology?

Friday, 8 December 2017

Performance drawing

Kate Groobey: Pants Down

Kate Groobey'sperformances where she acts as if she is an element within her own paintings, reminded me of how important performance is when making a drawing or painting. The animated video 'Pants down' being a sort of half way house between one of her paintings and one of her performances, the crude moving elements within the painting, easily produced by attaching painted cardboard cut-outs to the body and simply beginning to move them around and then stop motion filming them. She obviously also took a few stop motion shots as the paint was applied and animated them too. You could argue that she is the imp that threatens to pull the rug from under William Kentridge's more serious approach to fine art animation. Although on the one hand there is a certain crudity in her approach, I feel this is actually a very sophisticated tongue in cheek response to the heavily theorised and very male dominated idea of 'proper' painting.

William Kentridge on his animation technique

Jackson Pollock was called an Action Painter by Harold Rosenberg because according to Rosenberg the canvas was "an arena in which to act".  Hans Namuth's film ofPollock at work, cements in my mind the idea of the artist in action as being what this type of work is all about. In particular as Namuth's film develops we see Pollock through a glass sheet that he begins to paint upon. As he applies the paint he is first of all seen as an integral part of the developing image, but he is then gradually 'painted out' of the picture as the skeins of dripped paint develop across the glass surface. In the early part of the film there are some images of Pollock's shadow painting, partly reminiscent of the shadow on the wall in the film 'Nosferatu' that I referred to in a recent post on the emotive use of tone. The artist in action and the marks made by the artist as a consequence of these actions become entwined together, the film becoming the vehicle that holds all the elements together. In many ways Namuth's film supplants Pollock's paintings in the mind of audiences, the images of him at work, now an integral part of the work's reception.
If we now revisit Kate Groobey's practice, we can see a direct lineage between Namuth's film and the films Groobey makes of herself embedded within her paintings. She is making work far removed from the Abstract Expressionists' very macho vibe, being able to use humour and a way of working that directly deflates the sometimes overbearing pantheon of painting.  Her feet sticking out from the bottom of the image below, tell us all we need to know about where she literally is in this work. 

Kate Groobey

Caroline Denervaud's performative drawings, are much more formal in their construction. It is as if she allows her body to be controlled by the drawing. She holds poses that seem to echo the shapes and forms required by the emerging image, her body becoming an aesthetic fit, as she responds to the demands of the drawing.

Caroline Denervaud
In an earlier post I introduced the performative work of Joan Jonas and in her case she develops more of a narrative interest as she constructs her performances.
Joan Jonas
In all of these cases the artist and the materials used become entangled in a complex work that sees the boundaries between art object and artist dissolve.

I was recently at one of Greg Burgoyne's drawing performances. He tends to use the elements we might find in the studio or even the stationary cupboard as the things he works with. Often developing a relationship with the material that suggests that he finds it hard to be in control. This is for me the most interesting aspect of the performances I've seen of his. I can engage with his struggle to smooth out paper, or the impossibility of controlling sticky tape when sticking it to your shoes as you walk. The ripping sound as his feet pull the tape from the roll, making an ever anxious soundtrack to what seems like a pointless act, or the sound of paper being torn and crumpled as it is pushed against a wall. He develops a very emotional relationship with his materials, they appear to have as much agency as he does in a performance and this is an issue I think is going to become more and more important.
So many performances have historically been about control and we now live in a different world, one with more awareness of how badly we have treated both each other as human beings and the world itself.

If you go back to the 1960s and look at performances such as Bruce Nauman's 'Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square' you have the sense that the artist was fully in control.
Bruce Nauman's 'Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square'

Anastasia Faiella

If you look at an artist such as Anastasia Faiella, you feel she is demonstrating how much she is in control of her body. This might be very hard to do, like an Olympic athlete if you train hard you can master all the elements of your process. However when you get to my age you are more circumspect. I am very aware that my body doesn't do the things it used to do, that it is getting worn out, so I begin to be more sympathetic to the agency of other things in the world. I value good shoes that support my feet and ankles when I walk, I appreciate the role other things play in my life, regarding the things I now do as being more like a slow dance with constantly changing partners.  

Gilbert and George: 1970
Gilbert and George were probably the first English based artists that I was exposed to who had performance at the heart of their practice. I remember going to see their large scale drawings of themselves in a very English landscape in the early 70s, in if I remember correctly, the Hayward Gallery and the 23 charcoal-on-paper 'sculptures' that make up what they now call 'The General Jungle or Carrying on Sculpting', were back on display recently at the Lévy Gorvy gallery, a timely reminder of the first time for myself when drawing, sculpture and performance seemed to have no barriers between each other. In this particular case the drawings, (all made on lots of sheets of paper joined together), seemed to provide an arena within which G&G could act, their other work being seen on TV monitors within the same gallery spaces. Originally titled THE NATURE OF OUR LOOKING this was one of several pieces with a pastoral setting, their ideas at the time all being related to what it was to be English and in this case they were looking at an English love of idyllic rural imagery, ‘Here in the country’s heart where the grass is green’ words by the Victorian poet Norman Gale, are quoted within the sculpture/drawings. The fact that much of their work has been about the myths of Englishness, perhaps being because one of them is English and the other Italian. The video 'Gordons makes us drunk' being a classic performance piece from this time and one that opened doors to a very powerful way of developing metaphor. Gin being seen within the English imagination as on the one hand a Hogarthian evil, as in prints such as 'Gin Lane' and on the other hand as a symbol for colonialism, the image of the English having their G&T served by a native servant being central to a certain idea of a colonial past. Gilbert and George by getting drunk on Gin became a metaphor for a period that perhaps the nation at the time wanted to forget.

All art is in some sense a performance and what we often see exhibited in relation to past performances is rather like a preserved stage set rather then the full experience. The Joseph Beuys exhibition that is currently at the Leeds city art gallery being typical of this. The vitrines within which his work is placed, being rather like the relic cases we see in Catholic Churches or objects found in a museum.

Joseph Beuys: Artist's rooms Leeds City Art Gallery

Beuys: Shaving performance

The reality of a performance is often awkward and difficult. This is part of the importance of it, performance art is not like theatre, it is not about entertainment, it is about awareness raising. The drawing issue is here one of planning, developing a concept and then enacting it. This is drawing as 'disegno'.

Marina Abramovic
The awkward feeling that the man must feel squeezing himself between two naked figures is exactly how good performance art should make you feel. The audience has to experience something memorable and life changing and in trying to achieve this, performance art perhaps holds on to its roots in shamanistic acts and our need for powerful rituals as life affirmative events.
See also:

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Camberwell hosts an exhibition of a History of Drawing

There is an exhibition coming up soon at Camberwell College of Art in the new year that may well be of interest to those of you that follow trends and changes in the education of drawing. This is the text given out by Camberwell to advertise the event:

A History of Drawing surveys the practice and teaching of drawing at Camberwell College of Arts over an eighty year period. Featuring the work of over sixty artists, this exhibition celebrates Camberwell’s past, and will shape making and critical debates about drawing for the future.

Throughout Camberwell’s history, the definition of drawing has expanded; from lines on paper to 3D and digital space. The exhibition is characterised by an outward-looking approach as artists have increasingly explored drawing’s uses in fields beyond that of fine art, incorporating new technologies, politics and science. The works in the show include medical illustration, drawing machines, and moving image works, exploring a wide...
range of issues pertinent to our globally shared present

The exhibition includes work by historical artists such as Edward Ardizzone, David Hepher and R.B. Kitaj, to recent graduates including Izat Arif, Adam Farah and Jennifer N. R. Smith, and current teaching staff including Miraj Ahmed, Tim Ellis and Janette Parris. The exhibition also features a new large-scale vinyl drawing ‘The Temptation of the Diagram’ by Matthew Ritchie.

A History of Drawing will be accompanied by a new publication and a symposium event about drawing in education, including presentations by Dr Hester Westley (Artists’ Lives Interviewer and Goodison Fellow, National Life Stories, British Library) and Ruth Stiff (Associate Curator, Kew). The speakers will highlight Camberwell’s legacy as a leader in the practice and teaching of drawing, and consider how current practices might shape future generations

The exhibition is curated by Kelly Chorpening, course leader of BA Drawing at Camberwell College of Arts and a practicing artist.

There will be a symposium at Camberwell on the 15th February 2018 from 2 - 6pm that will open out some of the issues raised by the exhibition.


45-65 Peckham Road, SE5 8UF London, United Kingdom

Exhibition open

Jan 16, 2018 - Feb 16, 2018

Friday, 1 December 2017

Tone and emotional value

Jim Dine: Flowers in a vase

The use of tone or value as it is often called in the States is a vital part of any visual artist's tool kit. However recent use of it has become the provenance of film makers rather than the drawing community, so I thought it time to remind ourselves not just of how important it is, but of how thinking about light and dark can extend an understanding of our place in the world. 

The reason the movement between light and dark is at the core of our image making is because of embodied thinking. Simply close your eyes and you will have reaffirmed the centrality of this to your conceptual view of the world.
 The tilt of the Earth in relation to the sun

The Earth spins on its axis and as it does so the line that divides day from night or light from dark, is constantly moving around the planet. Humankind's personal experience of this caused them to divide experiences into periods of day and night. We base our sense of time on this and use our waking hours in the time of light and our sleep periods at times of darkness. (Or we did do before the invention of artificial light) A lack of light causes us difficulties, unlike a cat our eyes are not designed for low light levels and unlike a dog our other senses are not acute enough to operate as substitutes when the light goes. The light from the sun is also warming and dark nights can be bitterly cold. As well as a dark/light daily reminder of the Earth's spin, the Earth orbits the sun and has seasons because it's axis of rotation is tilted at an angle of 23.5 degrees relative to it's orbital plane. We therefore experience a more gradual series of dark / light changes; winters being cold and dark, summers warm and bright. These experiences are integral to what we are as a species and we are therefore highly attuned to the various differences in our experience of light and darkness. Whether it is telling the time by looking at differences in shadow length, judging distance by using atmospheric perspective, being able to tell what the weather is going to be like because of the quality of the light or forecasting the future by gazing at the sunset, the various qualities of light or its absence are vital to our understanding of what it is to be an animal living on a spinning planet that derives its warmth from a yellow sun. The experience is both physical and emotional, the introduction of SAD lights into Glasgow coffee shops recently being a timely reminder of how Northern countries suffer from a lack of sun during the winter and how this affects our emotional well being.

The experience of living in a world that has constantly changing light / dark values is central to the use of tonal value as a form of communication to others. Communication only works if there are common points of understanding between the message sender and the receiver, therefore the control of light by a message sender will inevitably trigger associated experiences on the behalf of the receiver.

One of the most important aspects when looking at differences in tonal value is that they are closely linked to differences in the creation of emotional register. The drawing at the top of this post by Jim Dine is of a very common subject matter, flowers in a vase, and yet by using a careful handling of tone, he has created a dramatic scene of almost religious intensity. Dine has always argued that he is not a Pop artist and that his work should be looked at in relation to much older traditions, so I thought it interesting to use his drawings as examples of how differences in tonal value could effect meaning and compare his use with the way it has been used historically.  
The use of controlled tonal value has a long history, and the terms used to think about how it creates effect have been around since Renaissance times, so perhaps that's the best place to start if we are to get a firm grip on how tone can be used in image making. 

Sfumato, which translates from the Italian as soft, vague or blurred, is a way of describing a type of soft shading meant to produce a delicate transition between tones.

Greta Garbo: Queen Christina 1933

The possibilities of soft focus were revisited by 20th century film makers who realised that the soft tonal transitions that can be created by shallow focus or the smearing of Vaseline on the lens, could give an image a more emotive resonance. It was often used to heighten a sense of romance or nostalgia; to create the out of focus feeling that comes with the warm glow of being in love. William Daniels was the film Queen Christina's cinematographer, a specialist in the use of light to evoke mood, winning an academy award for his work on the 'Naked City', this time often using the high contrast of chiaroscuro, (see definition later) to highlight the drama and emotional intensity of city life. 

William Daniels: still from the 'Naked City'

Leonardo da Vinci's definition of sfumato was "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane". He was the first artist to use a soft focus gaze to heighten a feeling of homely spirituality. Compare the lighting and direction of gaze in the images of Greta Garbo and the Virgin Mary and you can see how close they are in mood and emotional register. 

Leonardo: Head of the Virgin Mary

The sfumato or smoke technique as it was sometimes known, is used to develop soft edges made by blending one tone into another. This use of sfumato allows Leonardo to create a statement about motherhood and love. The soft gentle forms that make up the image mean that harsh sharp edges and hard lines are avoided, our view of motherhood is in this case idyllic and myth-like, which is as it should be when creating an image of the Virgin Mary. 
Sfumato would also be used to emphasise a quiet sadness or interior reflection. 

Jim Dine: self portrait

The self-portrait by Dine above was the closest I could find to him using the sfumato technique. Leonardo would have criticised this drawing as being too dramatic, dark and light patches swirl around the head and create drama, as in chiaroscuro, but there is a certain softness about the edge of the head that could be read as being the result of a sfumato technique and there is I would suggest a certain quiet sadness or interior reflection communicated. Very few contemporary artists use the classical techniques exactly as they were intended, but after 500 years or so ideas about drawing have changed, so it would be unlikely to find an artist working in exactly the same way. Diane Victor's smoke portraits use the idea of sfumato in a very direct way; she draws with candle smoke. Smoke drawings are very fragile; it is almost impossible to touch them without knocking the soot off the image and in this very fragility, they add an emotional layer to our engagement with them. They operate very like memento mori or vanitas images, reminders of the very temporary nature of our existence. 

Diane Victor: Smoke portrait

Unione is a technique by which you achieve emotional delicacy by the control of a tonal scheme. One way that controlled tonal gradation can be achieved is by toning down colours by reducing their saturation, something we have become used to because of the way 'saturation' can be easily adjusted within computer software packages such as Photoshop. However using the technique to adjust the emotional range in a drawing or painting is an important discipline to learn and one often forgotten about. Unione, or what is sometimes called 'the union of planes', does not tend to use the softened edge that we see in sfumato, it tends towards the use of defined edges so that it is easier to see structure and form, but this is not to develop drama as in the use of chiaroscuro. Dark against light and light against dark is in a composition, used to clarify form and this is part of a wider or more overarching concept of the breadth of tone or type of tonal scheme. The search is for the right “tonal key” for the image, and this is what will determine the image's mood and emotional impact. Unione is about composing tonal values, seeking an overall feel or emotional register to an image. The quiet solidity of the image of St. Catherine below, suggests that she will always be there, she has totally transcended her horrific experiences of being tortured on the wheel and now helps to cement the viewer's relationship with God. There is no need for drama because the church is sure in its convictions, the tonal range echoes this and the modelling of forms gives the body a monumental stability. 

Raphael: Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Raphael: Drawing of a female saint

If you look at the Raphael painting of St Catherine, you will see the result of toning down the colour range and de-saturating the primary reds and blues. Compare Raphael's drawing of a female saint with Leonardo's and you can see clearly how line is used to define edges and that the tonal range is very limited. This avoids dramatic lighting and yet gives solidity and stability to the image, because the forms are so clear. 

Bill Viola

The video artist Bill Viola is probably the best person to look at if you are thinking about finding an artist that uses these techniques today. Look at Bill Viola's lighting and he is often found trying to emulate the emotional registers found in Renaissance paintings and in order to do this he has to control tonal value very accurately. In the case above he has used the concept of unione to create a very low colour saturation in order to control the image's mood and emotional impact. By being aware of these issues Viola is able to add a far more stringent technical control to his lighting of scenes.

Cangiante, is a method of working up dark or light patches using a different colour, for instance yellows might move into being greens when they need to be darkened, rather than moving into the mustards. This is a technique more for the use of painters, but I have used it in drawing, especially when working in pastel. The term comes from the Italian “cangiare” meaning, “to change”.  It is useful when working with poor quality pastels or paints, as the amount of pigment in them can be very low and therefore in a shadow or tint the colour becomes dull. As a technique it can result in unexpected colour values, which is why the technique of cangiante was often used for painting religious drapery, the unearthly colours suggesting the spiritual nature of the subject matter. 

Fra Angelico: Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

Look at how the colours of the priest's robe move from green to yellow, this has the effect of highlighting the spiritual, other worldly intensity of the situation, and this emotional register is achieved without having to resort to the drama of chiaroscuro. Michelangelo was known to be a great admirer of this technique and used it extensively in the Sistine Chapel ceiling; whether to save money or to heighten certain spiritual effects I'm not sure. 
Film makers often use colour filters to give emotion effect. In Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo, Judy who’s also playing her alter-ego character Madeline has a dual evil/good nature, and her half-lit green tinted face leaves us in no doubt as to this duality. In this case the green virtually monochrome effect of the filter suggests a demonic rather than spiritual register, the strong tonal contrast however reminds me of the use of chiaroscuro

Still from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo

Chiaroscuro involves strong tonal contrasts between light and dark, often used to model three-dimensional form to powerful effect. Chiaroscuro is at the dramatic end of the emotional scale, used to emphasise strong emotions and dynamic action. Caravaggio's St Catherine is a woman in action rather than a Saint in contemplation as in Raphael's version.

Caravaggio: St Catherine

The outward looking gaze means that we are engaged in the drama of Caravaggio’s St. Catherine's life; the light dark contrast is taken to extremes, it feels almost as if the scene is lit by flash light.
Rembrandt's great etching, 'Christ healing the sick', is another example of how chiaroscuro can be used to compose the drama of an event.


Jim Dine's image of a screwdriver below is a useful demonstration of how by using a technique normally reserved for showcasing the drama of human lives, an artist can give honorific value to other things. In this case the screwdriver is effectively a stand in for a human being. 

Jim Dine: screwdriver

The dramatic lighting of the horror movie is where we see the full potential of tonal manipulation in relation to emotional intensity, even the earliest horror movies such as 'Nosferatu' were using tone and shadow as powerful indicators of fear and anxiety.

A still from F. W. Murnau's 'Nosferatu'

The control of light to effect meaning is now part of the normal day to day training of any photography student, but it is often forgotten how the language of tonal difference was once an integral part of an artist's lexicon. Lighting guides such as the ones below are freely available and any of you thinking of photographing your work, should download one and print off so that you become conversant with the camera's potential to construct tonal ideas.

Get print version from here

Photography Lighting tips

Compare the images of tonal control using a camera above to the drawing by Stanley Spencer below and you can see where perhaps drawing technique 'wins out'. The pen and ink drawing that Spenser did of himself when very young, involved an intensity of looking over a period of time. The pen and ink strokes not only mesh together to create differences in light and shade, but suggest movement across the contours of the face and an awareness of an underlying muscle structure that gives a heightened feeling of weight and presence to the head. This coupled with the gradual fading out of the drawing as it reaches the body, means that the drawing can suggest a degree of focus that photographs with all their ability to play with focal length, do not. 

The close relationship between drawing and photography means that many contemporary artists rely on photographs or a combination of drawing and photography to inform their image making.

Emma Stibbon in the image above, uses a play of light that is derived from photographic documentation but because she supplements her thinking by also making drawings from the subjects chosen, she is able to carefully chose how much to copy and how much to invent. In the case of the large woodcut print above, it relies on a drama of dark light contrast that also refers to the most memorable of works that came from an older tradition of prints made as records of the 'Grand Tour' of Europe, whereby the rich would be taken around the artistic highlights of each European country. In particular the artist Piranesi was able to rise above the 'postcard' feeling of many of his contemporaries and give to his images some of the romantic grandeur that ruins often have in the mind of a romantic traveller and it is this 'sublime' grandeur that Stibbon is looking for. 

Piranesi: Arch of Constantine

The romance of old ruins seems to demand a powerful lighting treatment, and our contemporary obsession with lighting buildings at night is yet another aspect of light's power to shape our emotional engagement with things.

The Acropolis at night: Athens

Like so many people this year I was entranced by the 'floating' moon that appeared in Leeds dock during "light Night'. Luke Jerram's 'Museum of the Moon', perhaps being a modern day equivalent of Piranesi's prints. 

Luke Jerram: Museum of the Moon

So a long rambling post has moved on from thinking about the way tonal value was articulated in Renaissance times to the lighting of buildings at night, via shadow-play in horror films, photography lighting guides and the way Alfred Hitchcock tells a filmic story. But these things are all part of the same urge to control light in order to effect emotion and in developing this control we seek refinement and an ability to understand how our emotions can be engaged. It is this delicate adjustment of tonal differences and qualities that I would hope you would take away from this post, whether in drawing, making a film or building an installation.