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Lesson Fourteen – Light and Dark

Arte and Zeuxis walk along the river. It is hot and still in midsummer, but in some fields farmers have already harvested the wheat. Arte looks with interest at Zeuxis.

Arte: Zeuxis, friend, it has been a while since we saw each other. Were you tired of coming to me?

Zeuxis: Oh, no, Arte. You have to be in a certain mood to call me to you. You have been busy these last weeks and had no time for introspect, dreams or questioning things. I only come at your bequest.

Arte: I missed you. Maybe I missed also being alone. After the last lessons on the harmony of colours, I needed to let my thoughts rest. You brought me in confusion and in turmoil of feelings. I wondered whether I would continue to learn about painting. I even wondered whether I would even continue at al with painting. It is all so complex.

Zeuxis: Welcome to adulthood, Arte. In this life nothing is easy. I felt the doubts and feared you would stop. But here you are. There is still much to know. The more you learn, the more you will understand how little you know. Goethe made his Doctor Faust say that at the beginning of his book. But Mephistopheles the devil took Faust on to see the rest of the world. Only resolution can kill doubt.

Arte: And you will then be my Mephisto, Zeuxis? I, who saw you as the Archangel Michael at least!

Zeuxis: Now you are complimenting, Arte. Shall we start? I would like to talk about light and dark now.

Arte: Yes, please.

Zeuxis: The power of the contrast between light and dark in paintings was a gradual discovery. Painters gained knowledge and awareness of the dramatic views resulting from light thrown on objects and the contrasts formed with their shadows. We also have to take the effects of painterly techniques in account to explain the evolution of how painters used extreme brightness contrasted with dark backgrounds and ample shadows in their work.

Arte: I saw in Italy very fine and very bright wall-paintings. Are you referring to these paintings, Zeuxis?

Zeuxis: Yes. In European painting, most works of before the thirteenth century were frescoes. In fresco painting, colours are applied on wet plasters. A first layer of plaster is set on the nude brick or stonewalls, called the "arricio". Thereupon the painters drew the design of their picture. This was made with a red ochre pigment and hence called the "sinopia". On the sinopia a light, thin further layer of plaster was set, called the "intonaco". On this wet surface then, painters could apply their paints. Only so much intonaco was prepared as could be painted over in a day, because the paint had to be put on wet plaster for the paint to react with the plaster and dry with it. The fresco work of one day was called a day’s work; a fresco painter worked in "giornate". This technique had several limitations for painting.
Over the large surfaces of a wall, it was very difficult to have gradual changes in tone. It was hard to continue day after day with exactly the same tones, and change them slowly over time without the differences of the days being noticed by attentive viewers. It was difficult to paint one side of a room in bright colours and the other side gradually darker. The earliest pictures therefore were painted in all-pervasive light on the environment and once the style was used for some time it became a tradition. Places, rooms, landscapes thus bathed in all-pervasive light that came from one side, as indicated by crude shadows on buildings and people.

Arte: In Venice I saw very old mosaics made in the Byzantine style. The mosaic layers already knew how to show shadows on figures.

Zeuxis: Byzantine painters had learned to provide an illusion of volume by showing the changes made by the shapes of the body in the vertical lines of the draperies of the cloaks of the divine figures, and later also by applying subtle shadows in darker tones. Such effects were easily transposed in fresco painting to give a sense of the direction of light. It sufficed to darken draperies in certain places, to bring golden lines to indicate the folds. But these were also the only effects of light used for a long time by painters. Occasionally shadows of the figures on the ground would be depicted, but even that obvious effect of light was not a first evolution.
Fresco colours become chalky with time, as the white plaster balances the saturation of the hues with white. The result was a bright, clearly delineated picture, in only so many simple hues, and without the richness of transitions in hues that could be obtained later in oil painting.
The discovery of oil painting allowed working over previous layers of paint. It allowed very gradual changes in hues and tones. It allowed a variation in colours infinitely richer than what could be obtained in fresco painting. It liberated the painters from work on wet surfaces. Painters could make repents with oil painting, corrections over earlier errors. And oil painting allowed exploiting all the richness of the observed changes of light that came not anymore fully from one side, but from one point in space. All-pervasive light could be modulated.

Arte: What do you mean by all-pervasive light, Zeuxis?

Zeuxis: An all-pervasive light could also flood scenes in oil paintings with brightness. This was the case in pictures made by the Flemish Primitive painters of the fifteenth century. In their devotional scenes, the divine light was to diffuse through all the figures, since indeed the characters belonged all to the New Testament. Shadows of figures would be rare and only slightly indicated beneath each figure or even only beneath some of the figures. Shadows were of course necessary on the figures themselves, in order to create volume, but were otherwise absent.

Zeuxis brings forward his magic screen and projects again Fra Angelico’s "Coronation".

-> Fra Angelico (ca. 1400-1455). The Coronation of the Virgin. Musée du Louvre. Paris. Ca. 1430-1435.

Zeuxis: An example of this way of representing the divine light over all of a picture is Fra Angelico’s painting that we have shown before. There are no shadows at all in this painting, as the divine light comes in equal intensity from all directions. Fra Angelico only applied delicate chiaroscuro on the draperies of the figures, which he needed to do to bring an impression of volume in his figures.

Arte: You used a word I do not know, Zeuxis. What is "chiaroscuro"?

Zeuxis: Painters can use contrasts between light and dark to create powerful effects. One of the earliest effects is called Chiaroscuro, from the Italian words of "chiaro" for light and "oscuro" for darkness.
Chiaroscuro was and still is a way to represent light and shadows to define the three-dimensionality of objects. Chiaroscuro was applied on all objects, but could be used at its highest complexity on the human body and on the clothes, often draperies, of figures.
By using chiaroscuro, painters can suggest that sunlight or other light comes onto a scene from a certain angle, from the left or the right. Light can come also from higher up or from below. The shadows thrown on the ground, and also the shadows on the clothes of the figures and on the architectural constructions indicate the direction of the light. The shadows form gradually on round objects, and by doing so they create depth on the object. Although the canvas is flat and has only two dimensions, chiaroscuro only can therefore create an impression of volume, which is an impression of three dimensions. Chiaroscuro has been applied since the beginning of painting, since it was the foremost technique to create illusion of volume, illusion of three dimensions on the panels.

Arte: What do you mean by the beginning of times, Zeuxis?

Zeuxis: Pliny lets a Greek critic state that an illusion of roundness could be created by the outlines of the figures. He stated that the outlines had to go round to such an end, that the lines promised what lay behind and in doing that would suggest what was obscured. Ernst H. Gombrich mentioned that my friend Parrhasios’ triumph lay in that his figures suggested what they could no longer show G106 . And indeed, Arte, we Greek painters already knew how to create volume by contrasts of light and dark!

Zeuxis projects now a painting of Michelangelo Buonarroti.

-> Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). The Holy family with the infant Saint John the Baptist (Doni Tondo). Gallerie degli Uffizi. Florence. 1506.

Zeuxis: We look as an example of chiaroscuro at the Doni Tondo of Michelangelo. Michelangelo used the chiaroscuro technique on this oil painting as if he were working a fresco. He used the play of shadows fully in the draperies to indicate the volume of his figures. Thus, although we know the tondo is a flat surface, the illusion of he knee of the Virgin coming out of her blue cloak is perfect. Michelangelo did not use black for these shadows, but lower tones of each colour. In the clothes of the Virgin he used darker pink on the right side of her robe, and darker blue on her cloak. A subtle transition of tones in the face of the Virgin brought volume also to her cheeks and lips.

Arte: Michel-Eugčne Chevreul argued that two contiguous parts of the same object unequally lighted by a same light differed from each other in height of tone and in optical composition of the colour, their hue. In sunlight, this happened to parts in shadow and the shadow tended not to black but to the complementary colour. Can you show me an example of that effect, Zeuxis?

Zeuxis, suddenly alert and surprised: Hey, hey, Arte. You hid from me that you had read Chevreul in the meantime!

Arte: I am a good pupil, Zeuxis, dear. Now go on!

Zeuxis shows Gino Severini’s landscape again.

-> Gino Severini (1883-1966). Landscape in Civray. Private Collection Rau. Germany. 1909.

Zeuxis: As an example of this we look again at Gino Severini’s landscape. The trees throw shadows on the ground. Severini did not paint these shadows in grey and black colour. He painted them in green hues, the complementary of the red-orange colour of the meadows.
Thus, the darker colours of chiaroscuro change with the colour of the surface on which the shadow is formed. Chiaroscuro on draperies means that the parts of the draperies that receive less or no light at all, thus should be areas of grey or black, but since these areas are adjacent to the coloured areas of the draperies, they take on the complementary colour.
The effect of chiaroscuro changes also with the colour of the light that is thrown on the scene. Light is not necessarily pure white. Sunlight can be orange-red to orange-yellow in morning and evening. Then, a whole picture can be pervaded by these hues and that has also its effects on the chiaroscuro and on the shadows overall.

Zeuxis waits a few moments, and then he continues: Chiaroscuro is a powerful effect in paintings. But not all critics unconditionally accepted chiaroscuro.

Arte: Chevreul wrote that for a painter to be a perfect colourist, he or she must not only imitate the model by reproducing the image faithfully, but do that while respecting aerial perspective, relative to the variously coloured light. He argued also that the harmony of hues must be found in the local colours and in the colours of the object imitated. If these were colours inherent to the model that a painter could not change without being unfaithful to nature, there were other colours at the disposal of the painter that had to be chosen, so as to harmonise with the first. With this definition, Chevreul departed from the usual idea of his time that was to admire full chiaroscuro in pictures. He also refused the opinion of those people who only called a painting beautiful when its hues were vivid.
He said a painting in full chiaroscuro or in vivid colours could have a disagreeable effect, because the colours of the objects had no harmony in the sense he had defined with his law of simultaneous colours. Chevreul was of the opinion that some pictures in flat hues (without chiaroscuro), but with hues that perfectly assorted to the eye, although contrary to those which we know to the objects imitated, could produce under the relation of general harmony of colours, an extremely agreeable effect.

Zeuxis: Yes, Arte. And this was a revolutionary view. It was an opinion that came very naturally from a person who had learned to admire good colour combinations to any other devise of art. But Chevreul disassociated in this view an object entirely from its colours. Chevreul encouraged painters to apply more his propositions of harmonies of colours overall than to paint the "true" colours of the object and to show it in its chiaroscuro. We now know how the French school called "Les Fauves", and the Divisionist painters, took up Chevreul’s opinions.
There are a few other techniques to talk about now that we are at it: Sfumato, tenebrism, and a technique we might call "point sources of light".


Zeuxis: Leonardo da Vinci was probably one of the first painters to use a technique called "sfumato". Sfumato is an Italian word derived from the verb "sfumare", that is to evaporate like smoke or to tone down. It is a technique whereby colour transitions between areas of different colours are made in fine shading, in subtle gradations. Thus the differences between the various colour areas gradually flow into each other. Thereby, the impression of lines separating the different colour areas is subdued.
Sfumato allows very soft but realistic rendering of faces in portraits. Leonardo’s chiaroscuro thus became subdued and gradual. He painted the transitions between colours broader than ever before. The advantage of this was that the problems of the simultaneous contrasts of colour were much avoided.


Zeuxis: The contrasts between dark and light that were exploited in chiaroscuro since the beginning of oil painting were mostly used until the seventeenth century to show volume and to indicate the realistic play of light on objects. In the beginning of the seventeenth century however, painters started to use the contrasts between light and dark in more dramatic ways.
Caravaggio made low tonal pictures with bright, splendid colours in his figures. Instead of painting nice, bright backgrounds as was usual until then, he painted his backgrounds in dark tones. All or most of the details of the background disappeared in this process. But then, Caravaggio brought his figures to the foreground in bright colours. The effect that was thus created, was an impression of intense emotions, of conflict between the drama of the figures and their surroundings. This style is sometimes called Tenebrism. The word is however not very correct when applied to Caravaggio’s paintings, since it seems to refer to pictures of overall low tones, whereas the paintings of Caravaggio brought often splendid and pure colours to the foreground.
After Caravaggio, the Baroque painters used this technique to augment the emotional tension of their pictures. Especially Rembrandt applied low tone pictures and the contrast against these backgrounds. He used even the whitest colour possible for his figures, which is the lead-white. When most, if not all the picture, is painted in deep tones, the term of tenebrism applies better to the style of painters like Francisco Zurbarán, Juan Carreno de Miranda and José de Ribera. Especially these Spanish Baroque devotional painters of the seventeenth century preferred this style.

Point sources of light

Zeuxis: The skill of painters can be remarked by looking at how the artists render the play of light. It takes much skill to show the effect of light coming from a left or right side. It takes more skill to show the effects of a beam of light coming from an oblique angle. Caravaggio excelled in such scenes lit by a radiant beam of light coming from a concentrated source.
The highest skill was and still is in displaying light coming from a point source. There is a tradition of painters trying their art at such scenes. Painters that excelled in scenes lit for instance by a single candle, were such different artists as Georges de La Tour and Joseph Wright of Derby.
In such paintings, one has to bear in mind that the light from the source diminishes with the square of the distance between the object and the source. Thus, light diminishes rapidly in brightness, especially from a faint source. That feature constructs dramatic effects, as objects and figures very close to the light are highlighted, whereas the brightness fades rapidly into total darkness.

Zeuxis shows a painting on his screen.

-> The Adoration of the Shepherds. Gerard van Honthorst (1590-1656). The Wallraf-Richartz Museum. Köln. 1622.

Zeuxis: I show you one painting, Arte, in which light comes from a single source. Here, the light radiates from the newly born Jesus in a typical "Adoration of the Shepherds" scene. Gerard van Honthorst painted a scene of the "Adoration of the Shepherds" that was in everything traditional but for the uncommon light coming from the baby Jesus that is thrown on the figures.
Van Honthorst made his picture not so many years after Caravaggio had made his first paintings with dramatic effects of light. Van Honthorst had been from 1610 to 1620 in Rome, and must have seen some of Caravaggio’s innovative work on the effects of light in paintings.

Arte: Great, Zeuxis. But it starts to rain. Let’s run for home now.

Arte start to run suddenly, as hard as she can, and Zeuxis remains perplex; then he disappears.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: August 2010
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