Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Chiaroscuro

A couple weeks ago, I attended a lecture at the Snite Museum of Art at The University of Notre Dame. For those readers who missed the gripping account of my little adventure, you will find a link at the end of the current post.

Emerging from the museum onto the hallowed grounds of academe, I decided to play the part of the peripatetic and walk around campus looking for photo opps. Please appreciate that I use peripatetic here in the sense of "a person who walks from place to place," and not the sense of the peripatetic as a follower of Aristotle, who taught his students by walking around and talking at the same time, a technique overused on the TV show, "The West Wing." I mean really, could they possibly have a conversation without everyone involved striding urgently around the White House?

It was a clear, sunny day, and I did manage to get a couple tourist snapshots of campus landmarks.

The Golden Dome

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart

I believe the person on the sidewalk is President Jed Bartlett, a Notre Dame alumnus, looking for someone to talk to as he is walking.

I also stopped by the War Memorial Fountain, which was not running due to the cold weather.

War Memorial Fountain

Inside sits this sphere. After I converted the photo to black and white, I thought this might be an example of chiaroscuro photography. I will leave the final judgment up to those who might actually know something about art and photography.


No one could be more surprised than I that I would come up with the term chiarascuro. I have encountered it a few times in recent reading, but it's not a word that comes up in my daily conversations. I even wrote it down on an index card when I saw the word in Janet Malcolm's book on photography as art, Diana and Nikon. On the same card I wrote ineluctable ("impossible to avoid or evade"), and meretricious ("of or relating to a prostitute; brassy, cheap, flashy, tacky, tawdry," etc.). Unfortunately, I don't remember the context of any of these words, but aren't they cool?

The Marx Family ca. 1913. L to R: Groucho, Gummo, Minnie (mother), Zeppo, Frenchy (father), Chico, Harpo.

So what is chiaroscuro? Let me summarize my intensive education on this topic, acquired at Wikipedia. In Italian, chiaroscuro means, literally, light-dark. The word originally applied to a method of drawing developed during the Renaissance. The artist applied a light material, such as white gouache, to a dark background, reversing the usual process of applying dark strokes to a white background. Consider this work by Zoppo, who was not the sixth Marx Brother (actually, there was a 6th, Manfred, who died in infancy), but an Italian artist.

The Resurrection
Marco Zoppo (Italian, 1432/33?–1478?)
Brush and brown wash, highlighted with white gouache, over black chalk, on blue laid paper washed pale brown; 14 1/2 x 11 1/8 in. (36.8 x 28.1 cm)
Purchase, Rogers and Harry G. Sperling Funds and Florence B. Selden Bequest, 1998 (1998.15)
Courtesy of www.metmuseum.org
The term chiaroscuro is more broadly applied to the effect of light modelling in drawing, painting and printmaking, where highlights and shadows produce the illusion of three dimensions in a 2D work of art. The interested reader can learn more at the Art Studio Chalkboard website of Ralph Larmann, a faculty member at my alma mater, the University of Evansville. A link is supplied at the end of this article.

Chiaroscuro has been adapted to photography and cinematography as well, where it may also be called low-key. Here is an attempt I made at a low-key photo, illuminating a small statue in with a flashlight in a dark room, resulting in strong shadows and highlights.



Link to post about Lola Alvarez Bravo

Link to The Art Studio Chalkboard, Topic: Chiaroscuro

2 comments:

#167 Dad said...

Awesome pictures.

I hope to see Notre Name some day, maybe attend the USC game.

And the Marx Brothers picture absolutely blew my mind. You're right they are cool, they transcend cool...

Great stuff.

ellievellie said...

Thank you! It was a great adventure for me to read your article. I don't know much about art - probably 1 milionth part of what you know - but it is always fun to learn something new. Your statue picture is perfect in my eyes. Looking at the ball - I remembered the feelings I got when I took pictures of mine - so you must be right - it is about a great contrast between light and dark! Like using the light to paint the dark! Or like using the light to change a sensitive film in a dark camera :) You are right - it is very close!

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