Sunday, December 11, 2016

Chiaroscuro and a Drawing Dictionary

One of the things I take for granted when I talk about art is terminology. I've been around it so long that it feels like I absorbed it by osmosis rather than someone actually explaining anything. I'm the kind of person that gets the gist of most things simply from context, which is not a good thing when you want to teach others. And I often feel like proclaiming to the world, "I'm an artist! If I wanted to have to explain everything with words I'd have been a writer!" However, my husband, a music teacher, has said to me on more than one occasion that if I can clearly explain a concept to someone, then I'll have a solid understanding of that concept. The stubborn, lazy side of me has always hated that saying but it's absolutely true.

There are lots of art terms that I'm used to hearing and using, but defining them - especially to people who are new to the art world - is challenging. And I have found over the years that being able to articulate my vision and goals as an artist has helped me create better, more distinct, more clearly defined work.

Public Domain,
Study of Arms and Hands, by Leonardo da Vinci
Today in my drawing class I had a newer student ask me to give a lecture for the last half hour. What? I'd never have anyone ask me to talk more about art - but this was different. This called for some sort of structure. Having to lecture on the fly forced me to think about the best place to start, and so I devoted some time to vocabulary.

I talked about line: contour and gesture, and what happens to those lines when we start to add shading. I always explain to my students that we use line to define the things we're drawing, but that our goal in shading is to eliminate or diminish every single one of those lines. I also touched on positive and negative space, and how that relates to lines and composition.

That's about as far as I got in class, but I kept thinking about it driving home. That brought me back to the word chiaroscuro. I knew it was a word I'd have to introduce in my next lecture but I realized that I didn't even know exactly what it meant. In my fuzzy memories from college, I remembered it was an Italian term, and had to do something with light and shading. But it seemed like such a no-brainer to me I didn't understand its importance so I never solidified its definition in my head. I decided to pull out ye olde faithful Google and found this formal definition:

Chiaroscuro: the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting.

Basically, it's the concept of using light and dark areas on a flat (2D) surface to create the effect of volume and three-dimensional form. This technique was developed to perfection during the Renaissance. When combined with linear perspective (which gives the illusion of depth on a flat surface), chiaroscuro made drawings and paintings look lifelike and realistic in a way artists had never achieved before. Compared to several different art periods through history, even when there was some shading, there was usually limited depth and awkward posing. (We'll explore this at another time.)

So this is going to be the start of a new series of posts that tackle vocabulary in-depth. To begin, I'm only going to cover terms that apply to working in black and white. Eventually, we'll get to color theory and mixing, but it'd be best to build a strong foundation using the limited palette that we use in drawing: black, white, and gray.

Are there any art terms you've come across that left you confused or unsure? Comment below and we can discuss it!