Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Composition Part 16 - Light and Dark

One of the easiest ways to test an image for compositional strength is to use Photoshop to desaturate and contrast the painting so as to see only the essential elements and their relationships.  If you have an iPhone you can do the whole process in seconds using the camera and filters. By doing this you are reducing the painting to large areas of black and white, with minimal gradation in between. Renaissance painters called this effect “Chiaroscuro”, which means literally “light-dark” in Italian. 

Early photography often created this effect due to the inconsistency of the chemical process. This photograph of Yvonne de Quievrecourt from 1914 shows (accidently I would guess) a wonderful strength and focus on the upper body and face, while giving only an impression of the dress. If the face had been lost in a light background, it would have been obvious at a glance.

Painters of the late Renaissance preferred the heightened drama of strong lights and darks. The Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt van Rijn shows this contrast beautifully. It also exemplifies the difficulty of modeling a figure within a very dark range (Christ) or a very light range (the surprised disciple).

This Study of a Nude Man by Thomas Eakins is a perfect example of Chiaroscuro. A pattern of dark and light shapes are arranged upon a middle toned background. The simplified development of the picture ensured that Eakins was focused on the general composition.

Coal Wagon by GĂ©ricault is a painting with a considerable tonal range. 

When you filter it to increase contrast and eliminate the color a series of silhouettes emerge. The dark wagon against the light sky, invert the effect of the white horses against the dark landscape. The whole effect is dramatic and highly satisfying.

I have already noted the wonderful composition of The Fog Warning in my post on WinslowHomer

Suffice it to say that the shapes and contrasts revealed in the black and white version make this image memorable. The complimentary colors in the final simply multiply its compositional strength.

Look at the photograph at the top of this post. The face is framed by a dark background while the rest of the figure is obscured. The same approach can be found in The Young Shepherdess by Bouguereau. The young girl's face is practically floating in the center of a white rectangle, while her arms are the lightest shapes intruding on the dark lower rectangle. The result is a bit awkward, somewhat suggestive, and entirely charming.

A Dutch Street Scene by Adrianus Eversen is a quaint view of a street, but it has an interesting dynamic quality.

That dynamism comes from the jagged black forms rising from the lower right corner to the upper left. It is still a recognizable street scene, but at the same time is a fascinating abstract.

Good composition can be found every day on the street and in the stores. This photo in the New York Times of Oscar Pistorius during his murder trial (Aug 2013) caught my eye immediately. The photographer seems to have consciously worked toward a cross composition which naturally rivets the viewer's attention. 

This Wall Street Journal photo of fire fighters this past summer also caught my eye.

It matches the painting of the coal wagon above, highlighting each of the fire fighters in reverse silhouettes.
Using dark and light is the easiest way to heighten the drama in a rendering or painting. Using modern electronic gadgets makes the process quick and easy. And if anyone asks what you are doing you can say that you are exploring Chiaroscuro; that’s Kee Are Ooo Scoo Roo. That should get you brownie points with the sultry Italian in class.

A caveat for all posts on composition.
You don’t want to produce total chaos.
You don’t want to create banal order.
You do want to entice, hint, and suggest.
You want to create mystery, even if the subject appears to be obvious.

 - Composition Part 17 - Value Studies

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