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The Mystery of Darkness

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It's been explained to me many times and I sort of get it but I can't reproduce it and it clashes with what I know about Old Masters. I think. My own favorite form of painting is a style known as Chiaroscuro, meaning light-dark. It's that style that creates great contrast between parts of a painting with great dramatic effect. Unfortunately it has gone out of style and modern paintings are typically of brightly coloured scenes of Venice or Paris or some other stereotypical destination. I'm sure you've seen lots of those. Your doctor's office probably has one or two.

We owe our magnificent light-dark painting styles to a variety of painters each of whom wanted to create great dramatic scenes of human tragedy. Some used the same technique to take an ordinary scene and show how even common human activities and emotions can be special in themselves. From such early painters as Titian, to Caravaggio, Velasquez and finally the ultimate master of light and dark: Rembrandt, we can see a long line of obsessed artists trying to capture humanity in all its forms.

In order to create stark differences between light and dark you need to have access to light paints and more importantly: very dark paints. Obtaining and using very bright pigments wasn't that complicated, although quite dangerous. Most white paints were Lead White, a substance derived from oxidizing lead. If lead poisoning didn't kill you it would most likely drive you mad, which makes you wonder how people like Titian and Rembrandt managed to become as old as they did. But back to darkness. How do you create darkness in a painting? Well you use black paint. At least that's the direct answer and the one you will be tssk-ed for if you were to be an art student. What you're taught is that you should mix other colours to obtain dark paints. For example you could mix Viridian Green and Alizarin Crimson to get a really dark colour. But unless you are making YouTube videos on how to do this where this always works you will either end up with something dark and green or something dark and red. It is very difficult to blend those colours to get actual black, or something close to it.

Now it does depend on your original background for this colour alchemy to work. If you have a blue-ish overall background and you mix the colours described above you could have a much better chance of ending up with black. That's the reason why this approach is suggested because these days most paintings have some happy background color. But not if you're an old master, then you start with pure darkness. Did the old masters also use red and green to create black? The answer is a very simple: no. They used black, or rather they used charcoal in various forms.

We know an awful lot about the pigments painters used and our chemical understanding of how they mixed their paints is quite detailed. There are also various books out there by authors with first-hand knowledge of how painters mixed their pigments, such as the famous Il libro dell'arte [1]. More specifically it says [5]:

How to Make Various Sorts of Black
Chapter XXXVII
Know that there are several kinds of black colors. There is a black which is a soft, black stone; it is a fat color. Bearing in mind that every lean color is better than the fat one [except that, for gilding, the fatter the bole or terre-verte which you get for gilding on panel, the better the gold comes out], let us leave this section. Then there is a black which is made from vine twigs; these twigs are to be burned; and when they are burnt, throw water on them, and quench them; and then work them up like the other black. And this is a color both black and lean; and it is one of the perfect colors which we employ; and it is the whole . . . . There is another black which is made from burnt almond shells or peach stones, and this is a perfect black, and fine. There is another black which is made in this manner: take a lamp full of linseed oil, and fill the lamp with this oil, and light the lamp. Then put it, so lighted, underneath a good clean baking dish, and have the little flame of the lamp come about to the bottom of the dish, two or three fingers away, and the smoke which comes out of the flame will strike on the bottom of the dish, and condense in a mass. Wait a while; take the baking dish, and with some implement sweep this color, that is, this soot, off onto a paper, or into some dish; and it does not have to be worked up or ground, for it is a very fine color. Refill the lamp with the oil in this way several times, and put it back under the dish; and make as much of it in this way as you need.

Let's start with Rembrandt, known for his bright striking paintings. What did he use? As it turns out his palette was quite restricted. He only ground a few pigments into paints to work with and those represent a rudimentary earth-tone palette. Usually he used a combination of:
  • Lead white
  • Ochres
  • Bone black
  • Vermillion
  • Siennas
  • Raw umber
  • Burnt umber
  • Lead-Tin Yellow
  • Cassel earth
From this he managed to create vivid representations on a canvas. If you've ever walked into a store that sells oil paints you might feel humbled that he managed to create all these masterpieces with so few colour options. See the photo above on the right for a snapshot of a recreated workspace of the painter [4]. Rembrandt was known to paint his entire canvas dark with blacks and browns over which he painted the lighter figures as filled shapes first [3]. This way he figured out the volumes and where light would be allowed to penetrate. Keep in mind that this technique relies on an immense confidence in knowing anatomy and proportions since those volumes do not contain anatomical content or other detailed information. They were just shapes.

One of Rembrandt's great inspirations and examples was Caravaggio, an earlier Italian painter who burst into the art world with wild paintings of struggling people. There are many similarities between the two artists and we know Rembrandt even modeled some of his compositions on famous paintings by Caravaggio prompting an exhibit in Amsterdam [6]. If at all possible Caravaggio's paintings are even darker and they needed to be since most of them ended up in fairly well lit and open church spaces. What did he use for his darkness? As it turns out his palette was strikingly similar to Rembrandts':
  • Umber
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Red Ochre
  • Vermilion
  • Lead White
  • Carbon Black
  • Lead Tin Yellow
  • Copper Resinate
Creating very dark mysterious paintings doesn't just depend on having very dark materials to work with, but it helps of course. Much also depends on the artist's skill in managing such pigments. When you try to make paint darker by adding black you tend to end up with a very dirty matte result. That's why they all started by filling in the background to work their way forward by applying layer after layer of lighter paints.

Another important aspect to keep in mind is the influence of varnish on a painting. When you're done with your work you still haven't seen the final version until the varnish has thoroughly dried. Once this final layer is added you've added a tremendous amount of saturation to your light and dark colours. Take a look at the included video about the restoration of a painting by Jan Steen. the lighter muted areas are those where the varnish has been removed. There is much more to the mystery of darkness in painting but this represents the basis to start from. As I learn more about Chiaroscuro and after I have more experience with this form I will most likely update the post with more information and details. Chances are there are better methods out there to achieve this effect but until then this will have to suffice.

[1] Cennini, C. (1960). The craftsman's handbook : the Italian "Il libro dell'arte. New York: Dover.

[2] Clark, K. (1968). Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton.

[3] Wetering, E. (2001). The mystery of the young Rembrandt. Wolfratshausen: Edition Minerva.

[4] Photo courtesy of Dan Englander

[5] http://www.noteaccess.com/Texts/Cennini/2.htm

[6] http://www.rembrandt-caravaggio.nl/index_en.htm

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On December 19th, 2011 01:44 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
Very enjoyable and informative read.
I especially like the bit about the art classes and their 'happy' background colours. That's quite funny (and true).
Glennis at http://glennis.net/real/
[User Picture]
On December 22nd, 2011 12:58 am (UTC), ironichles replied:
Thanks! I've been browsing your website, really interesting information. I'm curious to know how specifically your interest in the Renaissance works its way into your design and architectural works. Easy question yeah? :)
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