By Amy Nelder, April 2015

“For those colors you wish to be beautiful, always prepare a pure white ground.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

How does an artist decide what colors to use – or if to use color at all?  What exactly is it that we are reacting to when our heartstrings sing at the sight of our favorite painting? Every artist thinks differently, as does every collector.

There are so many ways to think about light, shadow and color in a painting.  Some artists do a graphite study first, and then transfer the composition to a canvas and paint in the scene in full color.  Other artists are so inspired by a painting, that they create a gray scale graphite drawing or charcoal of it after and in addition to the first, fuller composition.  “I really don't have a specific time when to release a black and white image,” says celebrated artist Aldo Luongo. “Everything's based on drawings...all my paintings. I even draw with a brush. I very seldom stop and not transmit it into a painting. Sometimes I leave it as a painting.  But then sometimes I copy it as a drawing afterwards on illustration board.”

Chiaroscuro is one artistic technique that, in a way, has little to do with color, and yet within any figurative painting it can work as a riveting guide for the relevance of the color itself upon both the painting and the stirring emotions we feel when we see it.  The word Chiaroscuro refers to the play of light and shadow as they fall across the contours of an object, and visually describe the three-dimensionality of that object.

Leonardo da Vinci was the vanguard European artist credited more than any other with the cutting edge use of Chiaroscuro in the 15th century; Tenebrism, spearheaded by Caravaggio in the 17th century, is a related technique that prioritizes a blanket of the darkness in order to create an illuminated focus on the light.  “Lady with an Ermin”, 1483-1490, by Leonardo Da Vinci is an excellent example of the juxtaposition of brights and shadows, and even a cloak of complete darkness behind, used to enunciate the form of the subject.  Artists who employ either Chiaroscuro or Tenebrism use it to describe the three-dimensional form in a way that conveys a greater realism – and sometimes dramatic effect.  The richest, truest version of a color in a painting like this is often the most saturated and giving off the most luminous effect to the eye, drawing us in exactly where the artist wants us to go.   

“Lady with an Ermin”, Leonardo Da Vinci, 1483-1490 (left)
“2 A.M.”, 30x40” hand-enhanced limited edition giclee on canvas, Amy Nelder (right)

Chiaroscuro and Tenebrism can be paradoxically both sensational and subtle at once. Color often gets all the credit when the viewer doesn’t even recognize that this juxtaposition of light and dark is the backbone of a piece.  I myself am obsessed with these two types of juxtapositions, especially Tenebrism, in order to create a spotlight effect on the colors, emotions, and content of the scene I want my viewers to experience with their eyes. Tenebrist paintings typically make use of large areas of black, and are even “sometimes referred to as ‘night pictures’ painted in the ‘dark manner.’” (www.visual-arts-cork.com) For me, a deep black background painted in a way so that even the darkness moves is a way for me to further create the illusion of realism, even if the viewer’s brain knows that the scene wouldn’t normally be seen in so much darkness.

The artist’s experience with the action of drawing a composition onto a canvas can even lead to decisions about whether to add color or not.  Aldo Luongo, a master of light and dark in his work, often employs Chiaroscuro.  He sometimes even creates a complete black and white Chiaroscuro work underneath a painting that ends up in full color, which is just one historical technique.  But sometimes, the drawing takes on such a satisfying life of its own, that the image needs to stay in the gray scale.   “When it pleases my eyes, I will use white and grey, leaving it basically as a drawing and move on to different shades with a brush.” Aldo tells us, “All of my works start with a drawing. If I'm very satisfied with it, it turns into a painting. But the foundations of all my works begins with drawing. When I get into the painting, I essentially continue to draw with my brush in color. My personal opinion, in like and dislike, in all the artists I admire, goes back to the basic instinct of knowing how to draw. It's not a critique of an artist who doesn't draw or not know how to draw well, it's just what I have found to be my preference over the years."

“Flamenco Fire (study)”, 20x16” acrylic on board, Aldo Luongo; (left)
“Sevillana”, 30x25”, signed and numbered hand-enhanced giclee on canvas, Aldo Luongo (right)

One of the many intriguing successes of Aldo’s work is his combination of the use of intense light-dark contrast in intimate friendship with the Impressionist’s obsession with use of a vibrating sense of light and color alone.

“Reclining Woman, seen from back”, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (left)
“In the Warmth of the Sun”, 30x40” acrylic on canvas by Aldo Luongo (right)

Carrie Graber is another incredible colorist, but one who is also big on stunning contrasts of light and dark, and even presents us with gray-scale or monochromatic drawings and charcoals at times.  “There's a certain grace and formality to minimalism. My grandfather was a black and white photographer. His personality was fairly subdued, calm, and observational.  As a farmer, he dirtied his hands, worked the land, and, in my opinion, aligned himself with the symphony that is simplicity and clarity.  Things need space; objects need context.  I think he recognized the essence of things, and chose most often to share them in black and white.”

“Skyline Trail”, 36x27”, oil on canvas, Carrie Graber (left)
“Skyline Trail (Charcoal)”, 24x19”, charcoal on paper, Carrie Graber (right)

We caught up with Carrie to ask her about her decision-making process when it comes to Full Color vs. Monochrome.

 How do you decide when to release a black and white image? Do some start out as either studies or sketches you are working on and you suddenly stop and decide "Stop there! This is magnificent in black and white alone!" or do you go into a black and white knowing you will use this limited palette?

 Black & white-- For me, these have always been fairly compartmentalized. I don't choose paint as a medium to express black and white, as the majority of my work is comprised of subtle mid-tones. They're an important aspect of 3-dimensionality, establishing foreground and background, and which shapes relate to which others. Charcoal, on the other hand, captures movement and spirit very effectively. When I compose an image, sometimes it will lend itself very easily to a charcoal drawing! If it's heavily tonally designed, it doesn't. I learned in my father's darkroom that to print a black and white image from a color negative, the contrast needed to be turned WAY up. They're two different animals for me.

 Much of your works are so spectacular with the use of rich, layered darkness. Do you ever use fully-valued gray-scale chiaroscuro underneath any of your work and then go back in with color?

“Reds Reds Reds” 28x48”, oil on canvas, Carrie Graber

 I don't put down anything dark on the canvas. I will, however, establish the light sources. If you look at a painting lay-in, there's an earthy yellow ground on the entirety, some chicken-scratch in a slightly darker mix of this yellow, and bright whites. Oil paint is transparent, so if I want an area to "glow", I put down white in those areas before anything else. If there was black in the underpainting, and I decide to move something while painting, it's nearly impossible. Ironically, I've recently learned that to make the darks really dark in the final piece, it's best to NOT put black down beneath it. I'm not sure why, but when the darks "glow", they look darker.

 How often do you create both a black and white version and a multi-colored version of the same image, and how do you decide?

 Sometimes! How to decide? Hmm... if it looks like I'll have fun doing it? Maybe it's similar to musicians performing in concert-- some songs are best recorded and others are a kick to play live. Some you dance to, some you hold a lighter up for.

We hope you have enjoyed Part 1 of “Spotlight on Color vs. Monochrome”.  More ahead featuring Daniel Merriam and Anna Walinska coming soon!  As always, for interest in featured works above, please contact your Chloe Gallery Consultant.

Cheers,


Amy Nelder
Founder / Artist / Vice President 

References:

  1. Arnold, Marion, Douma, Michael, Mathews, Simone, Remes, Outi, Smith, Sally, “Leonardo da Vinci’s Chiaroscuro”, Color, Vision and Art – Vision Science and the Emergence of Modern Art, Webexhibits, http://www.webexhibits.org/colorart/vinci.html
  2. Art Encyclopedia, “Tenebrism - Characteristics of 17th Century Tenebrist Painting Technique”, copyright visual-arts-cork.com 2015, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/painting/tenebrism.htm
  3. Smith, Kate, “Quotes about Color by Leonardo Da Vinci”, copyright 2015, Kate Smith, LLC, sensationalcolor.com, http://www.sensationalcolor.com/color-resources/quotes-about-color/leonardo-da-vinci-6087#.VRxrkvnF-mQ