Archive for April, 2006


Light and dark. Day and night. Chiaroscuro. Sunlight and moonlight. Starlight. Direct and reflected light.

Consider the work of two of the great masters, Rembrandt and Turner. Rembrandt’s work is dark and gloomy, with deep darkness enveloping the canvas, making us think that he has a dark personality; whereas Turner’s work is luminous, with detail on the light end of the spectrum often lost in a golden glow.
This could lead us to imagine Turner as having a sunny disposition. But when we look more closely, the opposite is true. Rembrandt delights in the province of light, in the fine texture of skin catching light, often losing anything deeper than a middle tone into a mysterious darkness; and Turner loves the shadow and the twilight, with the lights merging and dissolving. In a Turner landscape you will never find a shadow area devoid of detail and energy. Another artist who takes a similar delight in the rich colour of the shadows while also enjoying the beauty of light, is Vermeer.

All of these are recognized masters, and their preferences or weaknesses are part of their strength. But let us look at the two approaches and how they affect our own art.

Imagine the earth in space, floating free, part lit by the sun, and the rest of it in darkness. Simple to draw, and even to shade. But down here on earth, day or night affects mere than just tonality, it affects colour, energy levels, even our moods. There is never just darkness, there is reflected light, moonlight, subtle in itself, and the subtlest and most beautiful of light, starlight. We live in two domains, the domain of daylight, and the domain of the night, and our voice changes from the one to the other.

In a painting, this domain of the night is not nighttime subject matter, it is the world of shadow, so often underrated, neglected. Ask yourself, what is the colour of a red ball in the light, and what is the colour of the same red ball in the shadow? What is the colour – the exact colour – of a white enamel jug in the light, and what is it in the shade? What about skin; hair, blond, red, brunette? The answers lie in entering into this domain, to spend time in the shadows, to learn to love its subtlety, and to commit to the hard work of rendering it, at the risk of ruining our painting. It takes a long time, enormous patience, but most of all, it takes courage. It is this thoroughness that marks the great artist.


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