Monthly Archives: March 2015




Chiaroscuro – originally meant working on coloured paper, building light tones with white and working down to dark tones with black. This technique is said to have drawn on traditions in illuminated manuscripts, where many scenes are lit only by candle or the divine light from the infant Christ.  Much later Georges de la Tour drew inspiration from this idea (and Caravaggio’s work, although without his penchant for the macabre), and produced this Christ-lit serene scene, The New Born Child, from the 1640s. It certainly shows a warm and tender atmosphere, due partly to the lighting, but also I feel to the red and golden colours. The light in this paintng is convincing, but definitely used as an artifice, to tell a story.

Chiaroscuro has a variety of meanings, but in the 16th century it became a popular effect, with dark subjects dramatically lit by a raking shaft of light from a single, constricted, unseen source.  This created extremely bold contrasts, affecting a whole composition, allowing subtle gradation of tone to create a strong illusion of volume and depth.

Caravaggio exemplifies the use of such compositional chiaroscuro.  I visited St Johns Co-Cathedral in Valetta, Malta and saw two of his paintings – The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, and St Jerome.  They’re quite different in subject matter, the one portraying the story of dark and dramatic deed, the other depicting a quite and studious moment in time.  In both cases a spotlight is shining on the subject and the surroundings are in almost total darkness.  There is very little half tone or reflected light.  This has the effect of completely directing the onlookers attention on the subject, with a minimum of distracting elements.

It is an extreme depiction of light, but effective, and used knowingly to focus on the subject. I find if I look at a subject I’m painting and screw my eyes up, the midtones of my subject disappear and the lights and darks become more intense, just as in Caravaggio’s work – so it is reality, but just not the everyday reality of things we casually look at. To get this lighting in a posed subject you would have to surround it with dark clth, and Spotlight the subject strongly from one direction.

Caravaggio’s influence was strong on many later artists, including Rubens.

In The Elevation of the Cross, 1610-11, Rubens uses chiaroscuro to highlight and mould the anatomical form of the diagonal line of the subject, making the figure appear really solid and to recede in space.

Artemisia Gentileschi, also influenced by Caravaggio, was an outstanding exponent of the style, as seen in Judith Slaying Holofernes, below. The background is completely without form or texture, highlighting the three characters as they play out their dreadful scene.

Tintoretto was a master of dark tones illuminated by gleams of light as in A Concert of Muses, and The Last Supper, below.  He used chiaroscuro in his compositional structure in a different way to Caravaggio. We are not looking at a drama enacted in a pool of darkness, here chiaroscuro is used as an element in the compositions. The lights direct the viewers gaze around the compositions, but there is still plenty of interest in the other parts of the compositions.

A later genre using compositional chiaroscuro was the nocturnal scene lit by candlelight, as in Rembrandt’s early work from the 1620s, which had a single, candlelight source.  An example is The Rich Fool, 1627, below;

A later Rembrandt, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, 1661-2, tells the story of a dramatic event, lit by a central lamp, or candle placed on the table but hidden from view.


The lighting in Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch is harder to explain: brilliant highlights and deep shadows suggest a moment in time between what preceded it and what is about to happen. But if the source of light is the moon, how can both the lieutenant and the woman in the background be lit?  And if the scene is lit by artificial light, wouldn’t each object have more than one shadow?  The light is so intense it must be from the sun – but in that case, why is everything else in darkness?  Only the woman, the lieutenant and a few individual faces are lit. In the face of these inconsistencies however, there is one detail that is so convincing, it makes the whole scene plausible – the shadow of the captain’s outstretched hand.

For my own work therefore I’m starting to think I might represent my subject in any way I choose, however unlikely, to suit my purpose – and that the onlooker can be convinced, or at least accept my vision, if I add to the mix one or two convincing details – which will have the power to suspend disbelief, or override it altogether!

In England Joseph Wright of Derby painted with strong, but graduated, candlelight chiaroscuro. The composition An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, below, shows an incredible mastery of artificial lighting.  The scene is “dramatically tenebrous”, “bright highlights juxtaposed with black darkness”, ( the style of Caravaggio. 

Other good examples of Chiaroscuro as a major element of composition which I looked at were – Durer, self portrait 1500;  The Proposition by Judith Leyster;  Goya, The Execution of 3rd May, 1808, 1814; and Christ on the Mount of Olives; Fragonard, The Lock; Gericault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19; Velazquez, Portrait of Juan de Pereja; David, A Marat, 1793.


Chiaroscuro can also mean modelling form by the analytical division of light and shadow shapes. Such delicate modelling chiaroscuro gives three dimensions to a form, by subtly grading tones. (Eg Goya, the Naked Maja, p221, Art Treasures; Velazquez, Vermeer p138 World Art, Leonardo )

There are chiaroscuro drawings, described, for example as ‘pen on coloured paper heightened with white’ (eg Watteau). Shadow is created by the use of hatching, washes or stippling.  (Eg Fragonard, p219 Art Treasures))

It can also refer to painting in monochrome or two colours, also known as grisaille. (Eg Turner, moonlit landscape).

Modern examples p343WA


World Art, D Mike O’Mahony, Pub Flame Tree Publishing, 2006

Art Treasures of the World, Pub The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd, 1975

Rembrandt, Michael Bockemüle, pub Taschen, 2007


national  accessed 11 March, 2015 accessed11 March, 2015



1.3.2 Tonal study on dark ground

Final stage – A3 painting on a dark ground


I prepared two grounds, one midtone (ultramarine, white and a hint of cad red) and one dark (same colours plus black). Before doing the painting on a dark ground I wanted to see what the process would be like starting with a midtone support. Broadly, I worked down to the darks using blue/black mixtures, and up to the highlights using blue with varying proportions of white, ending by adding extreme highlights and darks with pure white and almost-black.

I did find the process was easier to get into, and got me off to a head start by having a mid-tone established from the outset, which I could use as a reference point.


Painting on a mid tone ground


Moving on to painting on a dark coloured ground, I spent a long time setting up a new arrangement inside a box lined with a dark blue sheet, with a single light raking the composition from close by to the right. It was quite exciting to see colour and black & white photos of my Heath Robinson setup, and to realise I’d got a potential Caravaggio! The contrasts of light in my arrangement are extreme, bold, and dramatic.

132.JPG   132.JPG

I sketched the composition on my dark ground in grey pastel then sat down to examine the tones in my arrangement and in the photos.

  • The darkest darks are the background, inside of bowl on the right, and top of bottles, left three quarters of front orange.
  • Lightest lights are right side of bottles, bowl and oranges.
  • lights on oranges are as light as the white objects!
  • Front orange is nearly all black. Back orange is mostly midtone.
  • Shadow sides of objects meld into background.
  • Underside of pestle has reflected light from inside the bowl.
  • White bowl and bottles have strong reflected light from oranges.
  • Back orange has reflected light from the bowl
  • The photo simplifies complex light and shade patterns. Eg just a few main light variations appear on the dark ble cloth; and highlight spots on shiny objects disappear.

I decided to approach this painting by setting out a limited number of colours – ultramarine, burnt umber, cadmium yellow and Crimson plus black and white – and trying to reproduce as nearly as possible the colours I could see. Having roughly modelled the first bottle it occurred to me that it might have been better if, before doing the outline drawing, I had added another layer to the background, describing the subtle texture and detail of the dark cloth, then painted the objects over it (this would also have made the ground less absorbent). Lesson learned for next time – plan the stages of the painting.

132.JPGIn progress

In the end, I enjoyed creating the background as the final stage in my painting. I lightened it considerably on the right side, creating a juxtaposition of complementary colours in the blues and orange. The folds of the fabric were created quite simply, as by now, after painting the graded tones of the objects, I’d improved my blending technique. The left side is as dark as the original underpainting, although I did add a bit of dark blue. The dark sides of the objects disappear into the shadows.

The front bottle is painted in warm tones to reflect the light from the oranges; the bottle behind has cool blue tones as its in the shade and picking up reflections from the blue sheet.

How I could exploit this effect in future paintings

My painting hasn’t turned out as extremely contrasty as a Caravaggio, but painting in this way has placed my arrangement as though in a spotlight, and it certainly helped give a stronger illusion of volume. The effect could be exploited in future paintings when I want to show strong contrasts and really highlight my subject and the illusion of depth dramatically.

If I wanted to throw the spotlight on individual parts of my composition, as in Rembrandt’s Night Watch, I could use extreme chiaroscuro for this – and let other parts of the composition sink into the shade. I’d also consider using extreme compositional chiaroscuro where the action or events in my painting are intrinsically dramatic, as in Rembrandt’s The Blinding of Samson – where the characters in the story are lit individually to display their part in it.

I probably won’t be painting interior scenes lit by candlelight or the light from the baby Jesus, but the effect could be exploited in an interior lit by firelight or the light from TV and other screens; This image by Banksy is an example.


and there can be other modern scenes, such as Henry Moore’s Pink and Green sleepers, where chiaroscuro can be apt.

Comparing my tonal studies:

I found painting on a dark support the easiest in modelling light and rendering tonal values. This was partly because by then I had more confidence and experience in using the media. But it was also the case that I’d lit my subject so strongly and created large pools of darkness, which corresponded to the dark support. The mid tone support also made it easier to render tonal values but for a different reason. Here, I had a mid tone established from the outset as a departure point from which darks and lights were added. The White support was the most labour intensive, as the whole surface had to be covered one way or another, except for the tiny points of highlights in the shiny objects. This meant that there was more possibility for error in judging relative tones. 

The effect of transparent washes does appeal to me however, and of all my studies I think the transparently painted study on a white support has the best sense of gleaming light coming through. 

Technical difficulties I encountered and my efforts to resolve them:

  • Opaque and transparent – I began by using opaque paint to model the objects, adding a touch of white to the colours – without this, I found my colours were affected by the dark ground showing through. Transparent glazing was superimposed to modify the oranges after I’d modelled them with opaque paint – I discovered this was a wonderful technique to subtly alter colours and tones, and to achieve a unifying effect.
  • Precise colour mixing I learned that patience, practise and time are needed to produce exact colours. A tiny spatula was used to pick up paint, and kept clean with a paper towel, thus keeping the pallete colours pure. My approach to colour mixing has been rather crude and slapdash so far – a good lesson in this video:
  • Blending the paint to achieve subtle gradations was a challenge. I experimented with blending the paint with synthetic and hog brushes, used wet and dry, scrubbed with the brushes and a rag and rubbed with my fingers. Synthetic brush gives smooth blending with no brush marks; bristle leaves brush marks and more texture, and can push the paint along more easily. A clean, very slightly damp flat bristle brush blended edges well, as did a dryish synthetic filbert used on its side, lightly blending back and forth. Excess paint wiped off the brush onto a rag or paper towel kept to one side of the support. This video gave me some good techniques to try, and helped greatly:
  • Softening edges is a skill akin to blending, but harder to achieve. I did it by dragging the flat of a damp brush along the edge, and succeeded some of the time. Practice will improve!
  • Keeping the paint workable. Both pallete and the support were sprayed frequently with fine mist of water to keep the paint from drying as I worked. I did some research on you tube and found a method of keeping unused paint on my pallete moist and usable after a couple of days.
  • Support – I found the acrylic primed canvas, taped to a board, quite good to work with, so will probably go back and buy up a few more pads.


An Introduction to Acrylics, Ray Smith, pub Dorling Kindersley, 1993

Rembrandt by Michael Bockemühl, pub Taschen 2007 accessed 15/3/2015

the, accessed 15/3/2015

Mark Rothko


While in Tate Modern I spent quite a long time in the Mark Rothko room, allowing my eyes to adjust to the low lighting, and after a while subtle shades, tones and nuances gradually appeared in his black and red on maroon series, a gift of 9 murals to the gallery. 

The monumental paintings seem to hover, contemplative, darkly glowing.  Surfaces ambiguous, porous, edges soft and ragged , forming borders between big colour zones – a pocket of stillness and silence in the noisy, bustling world. Repetition and variation characterise R’s series – he stated “if a thing’s worth doing once, it is worth doing over and over again – exploring it, probing it…” (Tate, booklet accompanying the exhibition “Rothko The Late Series”)


When Rothko accepted the commission in 1958 for the restaurant of the Seagram building, he was excited by the idea that he could make a room out of painting – that painting could go beyond the individual canvas, that would create an environment that the viewer would be in.

The first thing he did was to rent a studio, a half size basketball court with hardly any daylight. Here he made a series of 30 murals, up to 3m dimension, working on them simultaneously so that the work on each could inform the others, using a system of pulleys to move and shuffle them around, up and down as needed. 

He eventually withdrew from the commission and paid the money back. There are many stories as to the reason, among them his doubts about the appropriateness of the setting.   But he had also outstripped the ambition of the original project, producing far more murals (30) than were required (7), and he didn’t want to limit his paintings to the terms of the commission. 

 In 1961 a critic seeing them hung in R’s studio said they created an atmosphere almost like a chapel, and that they were as ambitious as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. According to Schama, they were deeply influenced by Michelangelo’s library in the Medici basilica of San Lorenzo. 

R apparently rotated the paintings while working on them. Close up, in strong light, drip marks from previous orientations, spatters, layering and reworking so can be detected (Tate).  R ignored the rules (eg regarding layers of oil, tempera and acrylic) to get effects he wanted; also this was a time of great technical innovation, for example there were new colours around and R made use of pigments which reacted to one another. Acrylic paints were still a huge novelty.  As a consequence, there have appeared substantial conservation issues with some of the paintings.


While the Seagram murals were predominantly dark red, warm maroon and black, Rothko’s earlier work had been lighter and colourful, but consistent with his style of stacking fields of subtly nuanced colour on a monochrome background, with ragged borders and soft edges. 



Subsequently his pallete became darker still,  the murals in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas raven blacks and purple –  later still he began to lay down a field of luminous light grey next to black, shining like the moon.

Finally, and these are said to be some of his most brilliant work, he produced a series of acrylics on paper. Rothko would have approximately twenty sheets of paper cut from a large roll which would then be taped onto easels surrounding the room… “Rothko painted very rapidly, and on a good day he could produce fifteen works on paper…. he painted with great energy, moving his whole body, not just his wrist. Some of these works seem to have materialised effortlessly, the grays applied with a single sweep of the brush. Such works contrast with more labored paintings on paper which Rothko could not resist revising and editing”.  (Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York 1984, pp.52-4).


References 31/01/2015 

Simon Schama’s Power of Art, pub BBC Books, 2006

Painting and Sculpture from the Museum of Modern Art New York. Pub Museum of Modern Art 2002. 

1.3.1 Tonal study on white ground

Weighing up tonal variation by eye is quite difficult to do; preconceptions interfere with the analysis of what you are seeing. I naturally observe and think about colours, not tones. Squinting hard removes colour from view, and you suddenly realise the light side of an orange is lighter than the white surface it’s placed on!  A digital photo of the arrangement displayed in black and white let me study tones at leisure, without straining to squint for long periods.

I used this exercise to practise rendering form, and also to continue building on my skill with the medium of acrylic paint, using transparent and opaque methods in separate versions.

In the transparent version below, the white of the paper illuminates the transparent layers of thinly applied paint. I wanted to achieve a sense of glowing light. I left parts of the paper white and later applied a transparent layer of pure yellow ochre over them. In the background, by contrast, I used a coloured ground, which shows through a later blackened burnt umber layer. 


The opaque version below (using the same two colours) was quite a different experience and outcome. To be able to superimpose light tones on dark gives a greater freedom to experiment with tonal values, repeatedly adjusting until the relationships between them effectively describe the forms, light and shade within the composition. On the whole I’m happy with aspects of the outcome, for instance the use of light and shade, and the descriptive textures of some of the objects. I’d give a little more substance to the background next time, it’s rather flat and empty, and the line of the table would be better drawn straighter. 


Comparing the transparent with the opaque versions is revealing. The transparent tones seem purer but harshly dramatic. The opaque painting has a softer and milky feel to it, and I think the objects look more solid and real. 



This is what I did :-

Set up a still life with artificial light from the right side and made some exploratory tonal sketches in monochrome. 
  • Derwent charcoal pencil. Landscape format sketch done sitting down with the arrangement on a table in front of me. 

  • Willow charcoal, portrait format, zooming in but same viewpoint.


  • Derwent graphitint pencil and XL, landscape again, but standing up, so a higher viewpoint. This is My preferred composition, as the viewpoint and more close-up view seems more interesting. The overall arrangement of shapes and tones seems balanced and the negative shapes contribute to the composition. It’s enlivened by the dark-toned background and the interest of the diagonal tabletop and white card on which the arrangement is set up. 

As I drew I was observing, discovering and learning the relative tones, position of light, shade and cast shadows, the negative shapes, the proportions and lines of the objects. I tried to be fairly precise in order to gather as much information as possible, which might help keep the painting relaxed.  I can see room for improvement in specific parts of the tonal studies, which I’ll try to make in the paintings. In the third study for example the inside of the bowl needs better form; the pestle should be diagonal not horizontal; the dun coloured jug should be darker toned compared to the white bowl and bottles, but not as black as in the first study. 

Next step was to draw the lines in charcoal on the white support. I tried too hard for precision, and ended up with rather dirty paper, so decided to use the support for an opaque painting. I wanted to try a transparent version too, so traced and transferred the line drawing to a second white support. 
First off, the transparent painting, using the white of the paper for lighter tones and highlights, with yellow ochre, burnt umber and a touch of black. I painted quickly, using thinned paint and with the support almost horizontal. I didn’t worry over much about detail and precision, concentrating on giving the objects solidity and the composition depth by building up the tones from light to dark with layers of transparent washes. Without using white paint, light tones can’t be superimposed on darker ones, so I had to be careful to reserve light areas. For the highlights I did this by using masking fluid. If I did the painting again, I’d be careful to reserve lighter tones on the oranges to contrast with the darks and give them a stronger form.
In the opaque painting I used the same colours plus white paint. I concentrated hard on blending colours, trying to achieve gradual transitions of tone from dark to light on curved surfaces, and more defined but still soft edged transitions to depict cast shadows. I could have worked longer, refining and correcting relative tones, but I feel I’ve achieved the aim of the exercise, to practise rendering form, and I’m ready to move on to painting on a coloured ground.