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.