Chiaroscuro vs. the 'Contour Method'

(Thomas Baden-Riess) #1

Recently I’ve been doing the Ani-Art Academy Language of painting programme. Of course one of the most important things that you are taught is the principle of chiaroscuro. The illusions created by the programme are incredible and therefore one wants desperately to incorporate them into your work.

However, I’ve come to realise that all my prior art practice (of 12 years or so), was not really predicated on the chiaroscuro principle, but rather something which I’ll call the ‘contour method’.

To clarify what I mean by this let me give an example. If I were to draw a cylinder I would draw it with the surface lines bending around so that they are parallel to the ellipse at the top of the cylinder.

So here’s the thing: it seems obvious to me that the illusion created by chiaroscuro is vastly superior to that created by this ‘contour method’.

But what I’d like to know is, is the ‘contour’ method totally without merit? And if so, why did I ever start using it?

It seems to me that actually it’s not without merit in the sense that if we took a human finger for example, there are actually natural lines on it, which fold around the cylindrical surface of the finger.


The same is true with blemishes on the face that will change in shape, size and distribution according to the curvature of the face. In fact even apples sometimes possess these lines. So in some sense part of what conveys that these objects are 3 dimensional is how surface features curve around the body of the object.

But for a smooth billiard ball I don’t think the contour method would be of any use whatsoever.

I should explain that I believe this principle was taught in the excellent book of J.D. Hilbert. A book in which he also showed us chiaroscuro for the sphere. I think it’s testament to my poor understanding (and indeed the poor exchange of knowledge in art in general) that I didn’t in any way grasp the significance of the ball drawing – not understanding that chiaroscuro applies to all objects not just perfect spheres. But probably the author as well was suffering from some form of cognitive dissonance on this issue, in suggesting chiaroscuro be used for the sphere and the ‘contour method’ for cylinders.

One corollary of all of this, is that I think it’s silly to believe that drawing is a necessary precursor to painting, since I think in some ways it might retard development. Because painting naturally employs colour, it immediately forces you to try and comprehend chiaroscuro, without which you can find yourself all at sea trying to create dimensionfull objects. I realised this when trying to paint an apple. Whereas with drawing, because everything is reduced to black and white, you can stick to the method of ‘draw the tone you see’.

I think I’ve largely answered my own question here, but wanted to post this anyway for later reference.

Finally, in two portraits I’ve recently been doing, the following problem has arisen: for that part of the face between eye and eyebrow, I have been unable to comprehend a shift in tone, nor either to analyse the shape of this part of the face and how it should be behaving under chiaroscuro.

Instinctively I have gone back to using the ‘contour method’. Painting up lines over this region (which are then blended) but which curve around the shape of this part of the face in the way I know they would.

It seems a cheap cop out but I just can’t apply the method of chiaroscuro.


(Anthony Waichulis) #2

This is really interesting Thomas. I want to study this issue a bit closer and I’ll get back to you on it. In the meantime, thank you for launching this thought-provoking topic here :smiley:

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(Thomas Baden-Riess) #3

Thanks Anthony, but don’t worry too much about it. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do!

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(Anthony Waichulis) #4

But talking shop and exploring ideas like this IS one of the things I enjoy most! :heart:


(Thomas Baden-Riess) #5

Haha I’ll make you regret that statement!!

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(Anthony Waichulis) #6

Ok, I found some time to sit and look at this a bit closer Thomas. There are many different way to represent something and all hold merit in some content. Let’s look at the cross contour method that you mention:

A cross contour drawing is a linear representation that uses a arrangement of varied lines/vertices (often varied in terms of orientation, proximity, weight, direction, etc…) to represent the topography of a surface or a form/volume. It can be understood as a linear scaffolding (or “wireframe” model) to assist in the conceptualization of form or the underlying structure of a subject.

Here are some examples:

Cross contour lines can not only assist with the aforementioned conceptualization but it can also help with the layout for textural or surface features and perspective elements. This can sometimes play a big part in my early cartoon work for a complicated subject.

Cross contour line work can also be woven together with tonal drawing/painting to generate some interesting representations:

I’ve even had to use quite a bit of cross contour work as it is an essential part of one of my most common subjects:

So yes, cross-contour indeed has merit. It may not seem obvious when looking at a polished tonal representation that seems bereft of all line—but at the very least, it may serve as an invaluable conceptual scaffolding amid such an effort.

Additionally, I would address the issue of drawing-as-a-necessary-precursor-to-painting in a similar way (that it may not seem directly applicable in some contexts.) While I wouldn’t call it absolutely necessary-- learning most representational concepts with limited dry media prior to painting allows one to focus on fewer variables at the onset. As you know, effective learning techniques involve a rational sequence of developing simple concrete concepts/skills and rolling them forward into complex, composite ones. Within the early arena of limited variables we can more efficient and effectively build automaticity and cement foundational concepts that can indeed roll forward into more complex versions of the activity we are practicing. It is true that this is lost on some educators–but if it is done correctly I believe that the drawing-to-painting path is far more effective in most cases of representational skill building.

Hope this helps Thomas!

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(Thomas Baden-Riess) #7

Thanks very much for the detailed reply Anthony. I would never have guessed that you might use it on the cartoon stage of the drawing, but looking at those peppers above, would make me see why it would be useful for guiding, amongst other things, the position of chiaroscuro marks.

I think from my perspective, as a pragmatic tool – given how simple and fairly effective the contour-method is – if an illusion is really failing to happen, it might be worth laying down some contours and adding some improvised details along them.

For example, if a nose is failing to be round enough, some impromptu freckles dotted along the contour line, might be a cheap remedy to a failing illusion.

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