DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


A Show of Hands


Study of Hands, c. 1474, by Leonardo da Vinci

Study of Hands, c. 1474, by Leonardo da Vinci

You may hear it said that artists hate to draw hands, and I don’t think there is any part of the human body that is more challenging to draw well than the hands. Of course for that very reason artists who relish a challenge love to draw hands. In the drawing classes I supervise, I have often noted that beginning artists tend to draw hands (and feet) too small, while the most accomplished artists often draw hands disproportionately large.

Hands are complicated structures capable of an incredible range of pose and expression. The fingers are the most sensitive as well as the most dextrous part of the body – paragons of both feeling and action. To watch the fingers of a great pianist, guitarist, or violinist, to see the expression that a master actor or painter or dancer conveys through the hands and fingers, is to experience the most profound grace the human being can embody.

Let’s look at images of hands in works of painting, sculpture, cinema and photography. Throughout this post click on the photos to go to the websites where I found them, and click on the titles of works in the commentary to see full versions where I show details, or to find more information about the works pictured.

Lady with an Ermine (detail), 1490, by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo’s hand of a Lady with an Ermine almost makes you feel the sleek fur and impulsive muscularity of the animal she strokes.

Madonna del Magnificat (detail), 1481, by Sandro Botticelli

Madonna del Magnificat (detail), 1481, by Sandro Botticelli

Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat invokes the holy with beatific faces and delicate hands, portraying the Virgin as scribe.

David (detail), 1504, by Michelangelo Buonarroti

David (detail), 1504, by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo’s David has enormous hands with incredible detail of veins and sinews, an image of power in repose.

Study of Hands, 1506, by AlbrechtDürer

Study of Hands, 1506, by Albrecht Dürer

The way Michelangelo carved with a chisel, Dürer carved with black and white line on toned paper.

The Fortune Teller (detail), c. 1594, by Michelangelo Caravaggio

The Fortune Teller (detail), c. 1594, by Michelangelo Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s Fortune Teller, like all of his work, is so vivid you feel the characters are alive before you. The hands are as strikingly present as the faces. Look at the palm-reader’s seductive grasp and stroke.

Hamsa amulet, artist unknown

Hamsa amulet, artist unknown

The Hamsa is a hand-shaped amulet for protection against the evil eye, commonly found in many variants throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The symbol has been around since before the era of monotheistic religions, but it survives in Judaism as the Hand of Miriam, in Christianity as the Hand of Mary, and in Islam as the Hand of Fatima. “Hamsa” means five in Arabic, and it represents five fingers, but it is usually abstracted to be symmetrical, so it appears as a hand with three fingers and two thumbs. As a symbol surviving from antiquity and remaining popular today, it shows the persistence of the idea of the hand representing spiritual power and blessing. (Indeed images of hands are among the earliest surviving human artistic representations.)

Tian Tan Buddha of Po Lin Monastery, Hong Kong, 1993, designed by  Hou Jinhui

Tian Tan Buddha of Po Lin Monastery, Hong Kong, 1993, designed by
Hou Jinhui

In Hinduism and Buddhism, symbolic hand positions called “mudras” are an important aspect of both ritual practice and the iconography of sacred art. There are hundreds of defined mudras, different lists of them for different traditions and disciplines. The gesture of the Buddha figure above is the Abhaya Mudra, the fear-dispelling gesture.

Dance mudras, date and photographer unknown

Dance mudras, date and photographer unknown

Classical Indian dance forms such as Bharata Natyam have their own collections of mudras, essentially a form of sign language for telling a story in dance. (Some dance mudras are demonstrated in the set of photos above.)

Hands of Buddha at Stupa of Dharmakaya, photo by lestermore

Hands of Buddha at Stupa of Dharmakaya, photo by lestermore

Buddha figures also have a whole set of prescribed mudras that represent things like charity, understanding, and asceticism. The right hand of the buddha above is making the sign of debate or discussion.

Mudra sculpture in New Delhi Airport (detail), designed by Ayush Kasliwal

Mudra sculpture in New Delhi Airport (detail), designed by Ayush Kasliwal

The Airport in New Delhi features a public sculpture depicting a variety of traditional mudras. The one shown above is called prana mudra by yogis. In yoga, mudras are like asanas (yoga poses) for the hands. This one is performed to promote the flow of vital energy throughout one’s body.

Christ Giving His Blessing, 1481, by Hans Memling

Christ Giving His Blessing, 1481, by Hans Memling

Mudras are not exclusive to the religions of Southern and Eastern Asia. Christ is frequently depicted giving a gesture of benediction very similar to the hand positions seen in Hindu or Buddhist figures.

Christ as Savior, c. 1614, by El Greco

Christ as Savior, c. 1614, by El Greco

One explanation of this gesture is that the three upraised fingers represent the Trinity, while the two lowered fingers represent the dual nature of Christ as man and God. (Eastern Orthodox representations of Christ feature a different hand position.)

The Creation of Adam (detail), 1512, by Michelangelo Buonarroti

The Creation of Adam (detail), 1512, by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Hands are potent and adaptable symbols in sacred art. Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam shows the vigorous hand of God transmitting the life force to the weaker hand of Adam.

Isenheim Altarpiece (detail), 1516, by Matthias Grünewald

Isenheim Altarpiece (detail), 1516, by Matthias Grünewald

Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece features on one panel the tortured hands of the crucifixion, and on another the raised palms of the luminous Christ rising from the grave.

Study of the Hands of God the Father, 1508, by Albrecht Dürer

Study of the Hands of God the Father, 1508, by Albrecht Dürer

The exquisite drawing above is a preparatory sketch for the Heller Altarpiece, another great hinged triptych painting. The left hand holds the orb of the world, and the right hand crowns the Virgin.

Baton Gestures, illustration by Priscilla Barrett from "Manwatching", 1977, by Desmond Morris

Baton Gestures, illustration by Priscilla Barrett from “Manwatching”, 1977, by Desmond Morris

Let’s get a little more secular now. The illustration above is one of many great pictures in the pop anthropologist Desmond MorrisManwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior. It shows “baton signals”, gestures that “beat time to the rhythm of spoken thoughts.” Hand gestures can do as much to inflect human speech as can tone of voice.

George B. Bridgman, illustration from "The Book of a Hundred Hands", 1920

George B. Bridgman, illustration from “The Book of a Hundred Hands”, 1920

Bridgman‘s Book of a Hundred Hands is a whole collection of an artist’s acute observations about hands, presented in both words and sketches. This is the kind of book that can help one learn how to notice things.

Burne Hogarth, illustration from "Drawing Dynamic Hands", 1977

Burne Hogarth, illustration from “Drawing Dynamic Hands”, 1977

Burne Hogarth had a way of expressing the power of motion through a detailed understanding of anatomy.

Burne Hogarth, illustration from "Drawing Dynamic Hands", 1977

Burne Hogarth, illustration from “Drawing Dynamic Hands”, 1977

Hogarth may be best known for transforming the style of superhero comics. His anatomy books are among the best for artists because they depict anatomical structures not in the inert diagrams of typical textbooks, but in vigorous action.

Two Hands, 1885, by Vincent van Gogh

Two Hands, 1885, by Vincent van Gogh

The impressionist and post-impressionist artists tried to show that everyday realities, like these rough peasant hands, can be as full of wonder and beauty as anything holy or heroic.

Baby's First Caress, 1891, by Mary Cassatt

Baby’s First Caress, 1891, by Mary Cassatt

The discovery of touch between a mother and child is surely as powerful a human experience as there is. Lots of artists are good at depicting mystery or vehemence, but it takes rare sensitivity to portray such a subtle moment as Cassatt does in this picture. Look at how the child’s touch to the mother’s face is returned as she holds one of the child’s hands and one of his feet in her hands.

Self Portrait with Hands on Chest, 1910, by Egon Schiele

Self Portrait with Hands on Chest, 1910, by Egon Schiele

Schiele shows the exciting narcissism of youth in his pout, his cockscomb hair, and his dramatic fingers.

Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935, by M. C. Escher

Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935, by M. C. Escher

This Escher print perfectly distills the unity of hand, eye, and playful mathematical mind that this artist cultivated through all his work.

All Power to the People, poster, late 1960's, artist unknown

All Power to the People, Black Panthers poster, late 1960’s, artist unknown

The fist is the ultimate expression of defiance and determination.

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley, 1894, photo by Frederick Henry Evans

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley, 1894, photo by Frederick Henry Evans

Let’s look at some photographic explorations of hands. An artist’s essence is as much in his hands as in his face. Don’t Aubrey Beardsley‘s long, long fingers look like the only fingers that could have produced his efflorescence of flamboyance in black and white?

Georgia O'Keefe, Hands, 1918, photo by Alfred Steiglitz

Georgia O’Keefe, Hands, 1918, photo by Alfred Steiglitz

And here is Georgia O’Keefe, austere and sensuous at the same time.

Profile and Hands, 1932, photo by Man Ray

Profile and Hands, 1932, photo by Man Ray

Man Ray‘s abstracting eye glamorizes the tactile.

Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969, photo by Emmet Gowin

Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969, photo by Emmet Gowin

Emmet Gowin sees the mystery in the everyday, the family, the land.

Hands on the Beach, 1959, photo by Bill Brandt

Hands on the Beach, 1959, photo by Bill Brandt

For Bill Brandt, the body is monumental, towering.

Interlocking Fingers No. 6,  1999, photo by John Coplans

Interlocking Fingers No. 6, 1999, photo by John Coplans

John Coplans‘ sole subject is his own aging body, seen with the sharp eye a naturalist might direct on some taxonomic oddity of nature.

Still from "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens", 1922 film directed by F. W. Murnau

Still from “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens”, 1922 film directed by F. W. Murnau, with Max Schreck

The cinema may be the perfect art form to explore the image of the hand. Nosferatu‘s vampire has rodent teeth, a rigid posture, and the talons of a raptor.

Still from "The Hands of Orlac", 1924 film directed by Robert Wiene

Still from “The Hands of Orlac”, 1924 film directed by Robert Wiene, with Conrad Veidt

In The Hands of Orlac, a pianist receives a transplant – the hands of a murderer.

Still from "Night of the Hunter", 1955 film directed by Charles Laughton, with Robert Mitchum

Still from “Night of the Hunter”, 1955 film directed by Charles Laughton, with Robert Mitchum

In the magical realist classic Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum plays a homicidal preacher with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles.

I’ll conclude this post with a selection of works by Auguste Rodin, an artist who grasped all the expressive possibilities of the human hand, and explored in his work many of the themes we’ve seen in the work of other artists above.

Clenched Hand, 1885, by Auguste Rodin

Clenched Hand, 1885, by Auguste Rodin

Could a face express such anguish? Compare this hand with those in Grünewald’s crucifixion, or with Burne Hogarth’s contorted hands.

The Burghers of Calais (detail), 1889, by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais (detail: Pierre de Wissant), 1889, by Auguste Rodin

This hand and the face combine to show us the mournful resignation of a man accepting his own death. (This is a detail from the multi-figure “Burghers of Calais“. The story it tells is explained at the link.)

The Hand of God, 1896, by Auguste Rodin

The Hand of God, 1896, by Auguste Rodin

Here Rodin shows us the hand of God as the hand of an artist like himself, modeling living figures out of clay. The position of this hand is very similar to that of the figure just above it,

Cathedral, 1908, by Auguste Rodin

Cathedral, 1908, by Auguste Rodin

Both this work and the next are composed of two right hands. A left and a right hand coming together are the prayer of one. Two rights shows the encounter of two individuals. The “Cathedral” is the potent egg-like space that is created in between the hands of two people who join to dance together.

Hands of Lovers, 1904, by Auguste Rodin

Hands of Lovers, 1904, by Auguste Rodin

There is profound power in this gentle contact. These hands are not grasping, clinging, or controlling. Each hand remains a free individual, with all its senses tuned to the mystery of touching the other.

If you know anything of the story of Rodin and his muse, protegée and fellow sculptor Camille Claudel, you may doubt whether Rodin ever achieved such sensitivity in his own life. But even if he did not, for me, he manages to express it in these moving sculptures.

Below, Rodin’s assemblage of a life-cast of Claudel’s sad and delicate head with a cast of the oversized hand of a figure from the “Burghers of Calais”, four images up.

Assemblage: Mask of Camille Claudel and Left Hand of Pierre de Wissant, 1895, by Auguste Rodin

Assemblage: Mask of Camille Claudel and Left Hand of Pierre de Wissant, 1895, by Auguste Rodin

For the artist, the hand is the extension of the mind. Eyes and thoughts reach out like fingers, touching the world, exploring it, shaping it.


Motion in Stills

Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912, by Giacomo Balla

Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912, by Giacomo Balla

Isn’t this a wonderful evocation of the movement of an excited dachshund out for a walk? You can just feel the undulations of the leash and the wagging of the tail, and you can almost hear the clicking of the dog’s toenails on the sidewalk. A camera might capture this scene by freezing an instant. This would give us more surface detail, but none of the jaunty spirit that Balla shares with us here.

In this post I present a variety of modern approaches to capturing movement in the still media of drawing and painting, sculpture, and photography. If you’d like a more systematic approach to the topic, I recommend this excellent overview by James E. Cutting. I have had a longstanding interest in depicting the spirit of movement, especially human movement, through drawing, and my selection here reflects that.

Classical art tends to imply the energy and movement of characters by putting them in poses of dynamic tension, or by depicting the flow of hair or drapery to suggest motion – some great sculptural examples are examined in the earlier post “Stories in the Round”.

Many of the prints in Hokusai’s series of “manga” (sketchbooks) are sharply observed pictures of human movement, sometimes shown in series of little drawings that look very much like the work of an animator.  Surely Hokusai would have made animations if the concept had existed in his time!

Yakko-Odori, c. 1814, by Katsushika Hokusai

Yakko-Odori, c. 1814, by Katsushika Hokusai 

The sculptor Auguste Rodin discusses how he endeavors to endow his works with movement, from the book Rodin on Art and Artists.

Note, first, that movement is the transition from one attitude to another. . . You have certainly read in Ovid how Daphne was transformed into a bay-tree and Procne into a swallow. This charming writer shows us the body of the one taking on its covering of leaves and bark and the members of the other clothing themselves in feathers, so that in each of them one still sees the woman which will cease to be and the tree or bird which she will become. . . It is, in short, a metamorphosis of this kind that the painter or the sculptor effects in giving movement to his personages.  He represents the transition from one pose to another. . . while my Saint John is represented with both feet on the ground, it is probable that an instantaneous photograph from a model making the same movement would show the back foot already raised and carried toward the other. . . this model photographed would present the odd appearance of a man suddenly stricken with paralysis and petrified in his pose. . . If, in fact, in instantaneous photographs, the figures, though taken while moving, seem suddenly fixed in mid-air, it is because , all parts of the body being reproduced exactly at the same twentieth or fortieth of a second, there is no progressive development of movement as there is in art. . . It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop, and if the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a movement which takes several moments for accomplishment, his work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image, where time is abruptly suspended.

St. John the Baptist Preaching, 1878, by Auguste Rodin

St. John the Baptist Preaching, 1878, by Auguste Rodin

Rodin is defending the traditional artistic approach of depicting moments against the new, photographically influenced, way of seeing time as a series of instants. Though he aligns himself with the classicists in this, Rodin was more interested in movement than the more academic artists.  He did countless quick sketches, both in clay and in pencil and watercolor, observing figures in motion and capturing the quality of their aliveness with a remarkably free hand.

Psyche, c. 1900, by Auguste Rodin

Psyche, c. 1900, by Auguste Rodin 

The “instantaneous photography” Rodin mentions was a new development in the late 19th Century.  It enabled the analysis of movement too quick for the human eye, much less the drawing hand, to capture. In the 1880’s, Marey in France and Muybridge in California developed technologies for photographing movement in sequences of still photographs. Muybridge’s work was bankrolled by former California Governor Leland Stanford to settle a bet he had going about whether all four legs of a running horse were off the ground simultaneously at some point in the gallop (they are). This was something that could not be determined by naked eye observation. Muybridge went on to photograph analytical movement sequences of many animals and human models performing all kinds of actions, and his pictures are still studied by artists, animators, and anatomists.

Long Jump, 1887, from "Human and Animal Locomotion", photo by Eadweard Muybridge

Long Jump, 1887, from “Human and Animal Locomotion”, photo by Eadweard Muybridge

Where Muybridge’s method produced a series of discrete stills, Marey’s technique superimposed the phases of movement in a single image.

Flight of the Pelican, 1883, photo by Etienne-Jules Marey

Flight of the Pelican, 1883, photo by Etienne-Jules Marey

The photography of Muybridge and Marey is a kind of proto-cinema, and motion picture technology grew out of their work. This study of walking (below) using a black body suit with reflective lines and dots on it even seems to prefigure the “motion capture” techniques used today to transfer movement from live actors to digitally generated characters.

Geometric Chronophotograph of the Man in the Black Suit, 1883, photo by Etienne-Jules Marey

Geometric Chronophotograph of the Man in the Black Suit, 1883, photo by Etienne-Jules Marey

From Marey’s photography Marcel Duchamp took this idea of superimposing temporal instants and combined it with a cubist fragmentation of form to produce his famous “Nude Descending a Staircase”, which caused a sensation – both of outrage and of inspiration – when it was exhibited at the Armory Show of 1913, the first major exhibition of European avant-garde art in America.

Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, by Marcel Duchamp

Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, by Marcel Duchamp

Boccioni attempted something similar in sculptural form, distorting the figure to emphasize its dynamism. Boccioni, who also painted, and Balla, whose trotting dachshund leads this post, were members of the Italian Futurist art movement, obsessed with speed and frenzy.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, by Umberto Boccioni

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, by Umberto Boccioni

This is an excerpt from the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, by F. T. Marinetti:

  1. We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
  2. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.
  3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
  4. We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  5. We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
Elasticity, 1912, by Umberto Boccioni

Elasticity, 1912, by Umberto Boccioni

The world was being transformed and unsettled by new technologies and new media, and all the conventions of art seemed to lose their power, opening up new worlds of creative possibility.  Among purely abstract painters, Kandinsky seemed to have a special ability to create compositions that felt like they contained leaping, vibrating life force.

Blue Segment, 1921, by Wassily Kandinsky

Blue Segment, 1921, by Wassily Kandinsky 

In the 1930’s, electrical engineer Harold “Doc” Edgerton and Life Magazine photographer Gjon Mili worked together to develop the photographic possibilities of electronic strobe lighting, which made it possible to slice time into increasingly brief instants.

Milk Coronet, 1957, by Harold Edgerton

Milk Coronet, 1957, photo by Harold Edgerton

Stroboscopic photography improved Marey’s sequential superimposition technique, capturing faster motion with ultra clarity.

Bobby Jones Multi Flash, 1938, by Harold Edgerton

Bobby Jones Multi Flash, 1938, photo by Harold Edgerton

These photographers saw themselves as following in the footsteps of Duchamp. Here are two stroboscopic photo homages to the avant-garde master, by Life Magazine photographers Gjon Mili and Eliot Elisofon.

Nude Descending  1942, by Gjon Mili

Nude Descending, 1942, photo by Gjon Mili

Duchamp Descending a Staircase, 1952, photo by Eliot Elisofon

Duchamp Descending a Staircase, 1952, photo by Eliot Elisofon

Strobes distilled the energy and grace of great performing artists into striking images for magazines, the great popular graphic art medium of the era. Below, the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and the drummer Gene Krupa.

Martha Graham performing "Punch and Judy", 1941, photo by Gjon Mili

Martha Graham performing “Punch and Judy”, 1941, photo by Gjon Mili

Gene Krupa Playing a Drum, 1941, photo by Gjon Mili

Gene Krupa Playing a Drum, 1941, photo by Gjon Mili

Of course, the art of painting is also fundamentally a movement art, as demonstrated here by Picasso, drawing in the air with a penlight, captured by the photographer with a long exposure combined with three strobe flashes.

Picasso Drawing with Light, 1949, by Gjon Mili

Picasso Drawing with Light, 1949, by Gjon Mili

Asian calligraphy had always been taught as an art of expressive movement, but Jackson Pollock was one of the first Western artists to treat painting as a form of dance. Here’s a video clip of Pollock at work.

Jackson Pollock Painting in his Long Island Studio, 1950, photo by Hans Namuth

Jackson Pollock Painting in his Long Island Studio, 1949, photo by Hans Namuth 

Dancers also used drawing and painting to try to show what they feel kinesthetically and proprioceptually. Here’s a sketch by Nijinsky, the dancer of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and the original choreographer of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Dancer, 1917, by Vaclav Nijinsky

Dancer, 1917, by Vaslav Nijinsky

Nijinsky’s painting looks remarkably similar to the analytical drawing below by choreographer Rudolf von Laban. Laban created a system for analyzing and describing bodily movement. Laban described qualities of movement using evocative verbs: Float and Punch, Glide and Slash, Dab and Wring, Flick and Press. Those words could just as easily describe the different kinds of strokes a painter or drawer makes.

Illustration from Sketches of the "Scales", 1920s (?), by Rudolf von Laban

Illustration from Sketches of the “Scales”, 1920s (?), by Rudolf von Laban

For an artist attempting to describe movement, it’s all about the flow of the hand, the rhythm and quality of the line.  The Charlotte Trowbridge sketch below is made in response to the dance of Martha Graham, seen here previously in one of Gjon Mili’s stroboscopic studies.

Martha Graham's "Letter to the World", 1940, by Charlotte Trowbridge

Martha Graham’s “Letter to the World”, 1940, by Charlotte Trowbridge 

This understanding of the expressive power of curved lines is essential in the art of cartoonists and animators.

Illustration from "Advanced Animation", 1947, by Preston Blair

Line of Action, illustration from “Advanced Animation”, 1947, by Preston Blair

Monkey Concepts 2 for "Kung Fu Panda", 2008 film, artwork by Nicholas Marlet

Monkey Concepts 2 for “Kung Fu Panda”, 2008 film, artwork by Nicholas Marlet

Dance photographers also look for those distinctive contours.  Below are two pieces from Lois Greenfield, perhaps the most famous dance photographer of our time.  Greenfield uses strobe lighting (single, not multiple, flashes) to capture the peak moment of a movement, that instant at the top of a leap or the ultimate arc of a gesture.  She also frequently employs the movement of fabrics, hair, or, below, flour (?), frozen in an instant, to magnify physicality with pure physics.

Sham Mosher, 1995, photo by Lois Greenfield

Sham Mosher, 1995, photo by Lois Greenfield

Odara Jaeali-Nash/Philadanco, 2007, photo by Lois Greenfield

Odara Jaeali-Nash/Philadanco, 2007, photo by Lois Greenfield

Greenfield’s shots are always frozen, perfectly sharp.  Other dance photographers use longer exposures to show movement with motion blur.  The challenge with motion blur is to find just the right amount – too little just looks like a mistake, while too much makes the figure disappear.

Motion (one from a series), 2012, photo by Bill Wadman

Motion (one from a series), 2012, photo by Bill Wadman


Motion (one from a series), 2012, photo by Bill Wadman

In the picture below, long exposure blurs are combined with strobe bursts to givc crisp renditions of the extremes of the sequence.

The Red Mistress, 2012, photo by Benjamin Von Wong

The Red Mistress, 2012, photo by Benjamin Von Wong 

So far we’ve seen movement expressed through blurs, stroboscopic multiple images, and expressive lines.  It can also be shown by distortion.  Look at the tire in the photo below.  It seems to lean forward with effort, while the spectators in the background lean in the opposite direction.  This is the effect of a slit shutter, a gap that moves across the frame, exposing parts of it sequentially.  In this image, the shutter exposes the bottom of the frame first and moves upward through a brief interval of time.  The racing car is moving as the shutter goes up, so the upper part of the wheel, which is exposed later, has moved further to the right than the lower part of the wheel that was exposed earlier.  The spectators bend to the left because the camera is panning to the right to try to keep up with the movement of the car, but it isn’t panning as fast as the car is moving.

Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France, 1911, photo by Jacques Henri Lartigue

Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France, 1911, photo by Jacques Henri Lartigue 

The “slit scan” shutter is the principle behind the “photo finish” camera.  Such a camera has a slit shutter centered on the finish line of a race.  As the racers approach the line, a photo is made with the shutter opening remaining stationary, while the film moves across in the same direction as the racers. This produces a photograph in which the horizontal dimension shows not space, but time.  Every vertical slice of this photo represents the same vertical slice of space – the finish line – but further to the right is earlier in time, and further to the left is later. The background looks like a streak because it is the same slice of space spread out right to left.  The runners appear distorted because different parts of their bodies are recorded at different times.

Harrison Dillard Winning the 100 Meter Dash at the Olympics, 1948, photo-finish photo

Harrison Dillard Winning the 100 Meter Dash at the Olympics, 1948, photo-finish photo

Some photographers have used slit-scan cameras of this kind to create artistic studies of movement.  If you stuck your hand in a scanner or photocopier and waved it as the scanner moved across, you’d be doing basically the same thing that’s happening in these photos.  The resultant image would show your fingers bending zigzag as the scanner moves laterally through time.

Priscilla Electric Lodge #47-1, 2007, photo by Jay Mark Johnson

Priscilla Electric Lodge #47-1, 2007, photo by Jay Mark Johnson

Temporal Form no. 11, c. 2006, photo by Ansen Seale

Temporal Form no. 11, c. 2006, photo by Ansen Seale

The below images are made by digitally combining “10,000 individual photographs of a dancer”.  I don’t know exactly what that means, but I presume the images are frames from an ultra-high-speed camera such as those used to produce those ultra slow motion videos of bursting water balloons and the like, and that these images are somehow digitally combined.  The result has the smoothness of the blur photographs combined with the sharpness of the stroboscopic images or the slit-scan images.

Nude #6, 2012, photo by Shinichi Maruyama

Nude #6, 2012, photo by Shinichi Maruyama

Nude #4, 2012, photo by Shinichi Maruyama

Nude #4, 2012, photo by Shinichi Maruyama 

The photographer Adam Fuss makes large scale photograms, images made by placing objects on top of film and exposing it directly to light, so that it records the shadow of the object. He uses water to transform the movement of the subject into ripples that show how its movement affects the space around it. It’s a beautiful way to show a snake, or a baby, not as a thing, but as a force in the energy field.

Untitled, 1998, photogram by Adam Fuss

Untitled, 1998, photogram by Adam Fuss

Invocation, 1992, photo by Adam Fuss

Invocation, 1992, photo by Adam Fuss

All the illustrations in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the photos will take you to the pages where I found them, and often to larger versions, additional work by the same artists, or further information placing the works in historical context or explaining the techniques used.



Self-Portrait, Skull, 1958, drawing by Alice Neel

In time for Halloween and the Day of the Dead, I give you a collection of skulls and other personifications of death and horror from the art of the past several centuries.  If you’re sensitive to violent, creepy, disturbing imagery, don’t scroll down.

Totentanz (Dance of Death), illustration by Michael Wolgemut from Liber Chronicarum, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493, by Hartmann Schedel

In the wake of the famines, plagues and wars of the late medieval period in Europe, there arose a genre of popular allegorical murals, prints, and plays called Totentanz or Danse Macabre, the Dance of Death.  Often there’s a series of images showing corpses or skeletons dancing with commoners and kings, popes and peasants.

Death and the Heathen Woman, from the medieval Preacher Totentanz mural of Basel, copy by Emanuel Büchel, c. 1770

These images say life is fleeting and precarious, death is ever-near.  High-born or low, Death will get you in the end.

Totentanz mural in the Anthony Chapel, St. Nicholas Church, Talinn, c. 1490, by Bernt Notke

Surely the Totentanz was an expression of something deeply felt by the people living in this time, who saw death everywhere around them.  The priest could point to it to urge repentance, since the end could come without warning.  The hedonist could see it as a spur to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh while they last.

Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women, c. 1505, print by Daniel Hopfer

Mortality is not simply an abstract fact for mortals, it is personal.  It comes to take you away from your life and your loved ones.  So it must be personified, and it is often shown as a skeleton or a decaying corpse that is animated, to show the horror we feel at the decay of the flesh.

Dead Lovers, c. 1470, by an anonymous artist

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a master of deep natural perspective and complex figurative compositions, transformed the simple Totentanz scenes into a panorama of war and executions, famine, torture, and madness.  Click on the image to follow a link to a much larger version of this landscape of hell on earth, big enough to scroll around and see all the horrific details.

The Triumph of Death, 1562, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The sense of death as a corruption that devours life from within has been expressed by artists closer to our own time.  For a 1945 movie, directed by Albert Lewin, based on Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Henrique Medina made a straight portrait of actor Hurd Hatfield that was gradually, over the course of filming, transformed by painter Ivan Albright into this image of walking decay.  Click here to see before and after versions.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1943, by Ivan Albright

Similarly, Francis Bacon transformed Velasquez’ strikingly realistic portrait of Pope Innocent X into a scream of modern existential dread.

Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, by Francis Bacon

A century or two after the era of the Totentanz, the omnipresence of death was perhaps felt with a little more distance, and the prevailing genre of painting meditating on death was the Vanitas, usually a still-life composition incorporating a skull or skulls.  “Vanitas” refers to the line from Ecclesiastes that declares “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” so it has some of the same meaning as the Totentanz, but considerably less of the visceral feeling of horror.

Vanitas Still Life, 1672, by Aelbert Jansz. van der Schoor

The Totentanz and the Vanitas are both considered versions of a more inclusive artistic motif called “Memento Mori” – Latin for “Remember you will die.”

Still Life with a Skull, c. 1650, by Philippe de Champagne

Of course artists also study skulls and skeletons as part of learning anatomy, the better to depict the human form full of life, and many artists become fascinated with bones as elegant forms.  Paul Cézanne, the post-impressionist “painter’s painter” made several Vanitas still-life pictures at the turn of the 20th century, as he faced his own mortality.

Pyramid of Skulls, 1901, by Paul Cézanne

During a brief stint in a classical art academy in Antwerp, where skeletons were studied as part of the curriculum, Vincent van Gogh painted this mischievous smoking skeleton.

Skull with a Burning Cigarette, 1886, by Vincent van Gogh

James Ensor, Belgian satirist and proto-surrealist, depicted pointless struggle in the form of skulls with mismatched jaws, wearing military garb and fighting over a bit of fish.

Skeletons Disputing a Smoked Herring, 1891, by James Ensor

Contemporary sculptor Kris Kulski makes ornate monochromatic constructions, many of them incorporating skeletons.  Here a giant skeleton appears to be building a city along its own spine.

The Decision, 2007, sculpture by Kris Kuksi

Yet another often-revisited motif in the Memento Mori tradition is Death and the Maiden.  This gives the artist the chance to contrast youth and beauty with repulsion and decay, combining sex and death in what artists found to be a potent thematic brew, pushing two primal buttons at once for a creepy frisson.  Hans Baldung was an early master of the erotic horror genre.

Death and the Maiden, c. 1519, by Hans Baldung

Throw in morality and religion with the sex and death, and you can really have your cake and eat it too.

Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, c. 1485, by Hans Memling

The Death and the Maiden theme has also survived into modern art.  How could the famously death- and sex-obsessed Edvard Munch resist it?

Death and the Maiden, 1894, print by Edvard Munch

Käthe Kollwitz sees the theme from a female perspective, and transforms the maiden into a mother holding a child in this image of death as predator.

Death Seizing a Woman, 1934, print by Käthe Kollwitz

For Hans Bellmer, mortality and sexuality are fundamentally linked in the depths of the psyche, and both are arousing and terrifying: Eros and Thanatos.

Instructions to Sexuality II, 1974, print by Hans Bellmer

The medieval view of death and horror was of something intensely real and palpable.  By the age of enlightenment, artists tend to express a romanticized fear of madness, of the unknown, of the supernatural – something we still feel in some part of our psyches where reason’s light fails to penetrate.

The Nightmare, 1791, by Henry Fuseli

Goya obsessively depicted horror and madness and evil, both in the absurdities of human behavior and the very real devastation of war.

Disparate de miedo (Absurdity of Fear), from Los Disparates, 1815-1823, print series by Francisco Goya

Japanese artists of the same period also display a wonderfully vivid imagination for visualizing the stories of ghosts and horror that abound in Japanese folklore and literature.  Here are works from two masters: Hokusai and Kuniyoshi.

Ghost of Kohada Koheiji, c. 1830, print by Katsuhika Hokusai

Detail from Princess Takiyasha summons a skeletal spectre to frighten Mitsukuni, c. 1845, a triptych of prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

In the later nineteenth century, death is seen more in a mournful light than one of terror.  No longer the dancing zombie of the middle ages, Death calmly ferries you to the set of a tragic grand opera.

Isle of the Dead, 1883 version, by Arnold Böcklin

Death is a symbol – the Grim Reaper, horseman of the apocalypse.

Death on a Pale Horse, 1865, by Gustave Doré

In our time, pop culture is full of images of avengers, terminators, furious warriors and inhuman killers, but it’s mostly fantasy, not our everyday reality.

The Death Dealer, 1973, by Frank Frazetta

I can’t think of a painting that gives a more realistic image of the act of killing than Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes.  It’s far more brutal and horrifying than Caravaggio’s great version of the same scene, and Caravaggio reputedly had real experience with killing.  But Artemisia was an ambitious female painter in a time when ambitious women got no respect, and she must have put the real murderous fury she felt towards men into this chilling work.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1612, by Artemisia Gentileschi

The ancient Mesoamerican religions were based around human sacrifice, and figures of death and blood and the underworld abound.

Mayan God of Death, date unknown, stucco sculpture at Palenque, photo by Sherry Hardage

The skull or calavera image survives in today’s Mexican culture in the jaunty decorative skulls and skeletons of the Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos,  November 1st, a time to honor ancestors and perhaps to be cheerful in the face of death.

Las Calveras, Cancun, Mexico, contemporary photo by Tiffany Shu

Elaborately decorated calaveras are a tradition with endless variations, such as this visionary Huichol psychedelica.

Huichol Beaded Skull, contemporary creation by Our Exquisite Corpse design team

Posada, a popular Mexican illustrator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, used the calavera as a basic motif for social satire and political cartoons.  This tarantula-skull is a caricature of General José Victoriano Huerta Márquez, Mexico’s brutal dictator at the time.

Calavera Huertista, 1914, print by José Guadalupe Posada

Through the twentieth century, much of the art of horror and death is about war.  The Great War of 1914-18 harvested vast swathes of Europe’s youth and left many more maimed and traumatized.

The Field of the Slain, 1916, by Evelyn De Morgan

The Victorian image of a dark angel, aesthetically romanticized, survived for a while as the predominant artistic depiction of Death.

Prospect Park War Memorial, 1921, sculpture by Augustus Lukeman, 2003 photo by Fred Hatt

At the same time, through this period, European artists like Picasso with his Demoiselles d’Avignon, composer Stravinsky with Sacre du Printemps, and writer Alfred Jarry with the play Ubu Roi, had been discovering the power of a rawer, more primal approach to expression, and many found it the only way to truly depict the horror of war.

Skull, 1924, by Otto Dix

Of the work below, full of chaotic energy, the artist said, “This is a painting I painted after the defeat of the Republicans in Spain.  This is obviously an ironic title [“Angel of the Hearth”] to denote a kind of animal that kills and destroys everything in its path.  That was the impression I had at the time, of what was possible to happen in the world, and in that I was right.”

I think the title “Angel of the Hearth” may refer to the fact that the violent ideologies of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism begin from a claim to stand as protectors of the homeland, and of the purity of their cultures and races.

L’Ange du Foyer (Angel of the Hearth), 1937, by Max Ernst

Mexican painter Siqueiros went to spain to fight against the Fascists.  His painted response to the war, from the same year as Ernst’s, expresses a more emotional experience of devastation and loss.

Echo of a Scream, 1937, by David Alfaro Siqueiros

Death taking his victims in his pitiless embrace is a timeless image.  Here’s a version painted by Vietnam veteran William Myles.

Death Taking a Soldier, 1997, by William Myles

Henry Moore’s sculpture “Nuclear Energy” is on the campus of the University of Chicago where the world’s first nuclear reactor was built.  It is an abstract image of power, but it evokes both the skull and the mushroom cloud of the nuclear bomb, perhaps to remind the scientists working on that campus that Death is ever near, just as he was six hundred years ago in the time of the Totentanz.

Nuclear Energy, 1967, by Henry Moore, photographer unknown

All images in this post, except for one that is a photograph taken by me, were found on the web.  Clicking on the photos links to the sites where the pictures were found, and in many cases, to larger versions of these images.


Different Strokes

Porcupine, 1951, woodcut by Leonard Baskin


The magic of drawing or printmaking is in the strokes.  By strokes I mean the particular and idiosyncratic quality of the lines or other marks the artist makes.  Some lines jab while others meander.  Some markings are cloudy while others are crisp.  The strokes convey in a tactile way the essence of how the artist comes to grips with the challenge of capturing a thing seen or actualizing an inner vision.  Making a drawing is a journey of exploration, and these markings are the spoor of the trek.  When we look at a drawing, we can feel the energy that went into it in the particular flavor of its lineaments.

In this post I present a goodly selection of mostly monochrome sketches and prints by a wide diversity of masterly mark-makers.  I’ll let the works speak for themselves and leave it to you to contemplate the contrasts among them.  I have generally chosen pieces with a direct, spontaneous quality, avoiding highly finished styles where the quality of line may be more a matter of design than of the energy of the mind and the hand.  I often tried to find unfamiliar examples of the work of well-known artists, and sometimes individual works that are not representative of the artists’ familiar styles.  I think you’ll be particularly surprised by the early De Kooning sketch!

Man Walking in a Field, 1883, conte crayon drawing by Georges Seurat


Portrait, title, date and medium unknown, by Paul Cadmus


Composition, 1916, medium unknown, by Wassily Kandinsky


Edward Scissorhands, 1990, pen and pencil drawing by Tim Burton


Autumn, 1970, engraving by Salvador Dalí


Self Portrait, 1946, by David Alfaro Siqueiros


Musician portrait, date, title, and medium unknown, by Edgar Degas


Drawings, 1939, title and medium unknown, by Jackson Pollock


Saturn, 1516, engraving(?) by Hans Baldung Grien


Resting Woman Wearing Tiara, 1936, pen and ink drawing by Henri Matisse


Sketchbook pages, date unknown, drawings by R. Crumb


Reproduction Drawing III (after the Leonardo cartoon), 2010, media unknown, by Jenny Saville


Self Portrait at the Age of Eighty-Three, 1843, ink brush drawing by Hokusai


Untitled, 1981, drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat


Study for the Head of Leda, 1506, ink and chalk drawing by Leonardo da Vinci


Gregory Hines, date and medium unknown, sketch by Jules Feiffer


Study of the Head of Elizabeth Siddal for “Ophelia”, 1852, medium unknown, by John Everett Millais


Femme nue couchée, 1932, charcoal drawing by Pablo Picasso


Old Man on a Swing, 1826, medium unknown, by Francisco Goya


Untitled, 1950, ink drawing on parchment by Philip Guston


Europa, 1953, lithograph by Hans Erni


Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1514, by Albrecht Dürer


Love Forever (TAOW), 2004, marker drawing on canvas by Yayoi Kusama


Bird Personage, date and medium unknown, by Remedios Varo


Court Room Scene, date and medium unknown, by Honoré Daumier


Beekeepers, 1568, etching(?) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder


Drawings, dates, titles and media unknown, by Alberto Giacometti


Self Portrait, date and medium unknown, by Henry Fuseli


Tree with Trunk, 1998, etching by Louise Bourgeois


Drawing, 1944, title and medium unknown, by Pavel Tchelitchew


Nude Study, 1908, etching by Georges Braque


The Sower, 1888, pencil and pen and ink drawing by Vincent van Gogh


Portrait of Elaine De Kooning, 1940, pencil drawing by Willem De Kooning


Some Can Fly and Some Can’t, 1939, medium unknown, by Rico Lebrun


Le Chapeau-Main, 1947, lithograph by Hans Bellmer


Sketch for “Apollo Slays Python”, 1850, medium unknown, drawing by Eugène Delacroix


Madame Louis-Francois Godinot, 1829, medium unknown, drawing by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, with detail


Corps de Dame, 1950, medium unknown, by Jean Dubuffet


Cape Lion, 1650, medium unknown, drawing by Rembrandt van Rijn


The Man who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams, 1820, print(?) by William Blake


Five Swearing, 1912, oil sketch by Ferdinand Hodler


Madame Sohn, 1918, charcoal sketch by Egon Schiele


Seated Bodhidharma, 18th century, ink brush drawing by Suio Genro


All the images used in this post were found on the web, and clicking on an image will take you to the page where I found it.  Any information about the artwork that is listed as “unknown” is information I was not able to find at the time of making the post.  If you can provide additional or corrected information I will incorporate it.

Readers are invited to nominate some of their favorite drawings for an eventual sequel to this post!


Painters of Light

Bambi’s First Year, 2009(?), by Thomas Kinkade

Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light (TM)” passed away earlier this month.  His psychedelically colorful fantasy landscapes are too sugary for my taste, but he’s a fascinating cultural figure of our time.  It strikes me that his technically accomplished, rather surrealistic style would have been embraced by the contemporary art world if he had presented it as ironic rather than earnest, and if he had sold exclusively to elite collectors instead of marketing to the masses.  Can’t you just imagine the painting above in a Chelsea gallery or in the pages of Juxtapoz magazine?  But he made the statement he wanted to make, and made a ton of money doing so.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to go on about Kinkade,  nor about the ironies of the Art World.  This post is inspired by Kinkade’s trademarked epithet, “Painter of Light”.  The post is a selection of great Western paintings of the last four centuries that beautifully capture effects of light.  They’re presented here in chronological order.   Any art history fan reading this will surely think of great painters and works I’ve left out, and I invite you to share your favorites in the comments section.

The term of art for drawing or painting emphasizing contrasts of light and shadow is the beautiful Italian word “chiaroscuro“, and there is no better example of the technique than Caravaggio.  He achieved an almost photographic feeling of realism and presence using dramatic, high-contrast light.  Where most artists of his time portrayed Biblical figures as idealized types in standardized poses, Caravaggio shows them as individuals, with distinctive features, physical flaws, and very human gestures and attitudes.  The chiaroscuro technique is so vivid you feel like you could touch the people in his paintings.

The Supper at Emmaus, 1606, by Caravaggio

Around the same time, El Greco was moving away from realism, with figures distorted in ways that suggest movement or emotion.  Was El Greco consciously experimenting with modes of expression hundreds of years ahead of their time, or was he a bit crazy?  Either way, the composition below is charged with energy.  The light is not realistic as in the Caravaggio – it strikes different figures from different directions, and sometimes seems to be a glow from within.  But the sense of light is powerful here anyway, as the turbulent sky, the satiny fabrics, and the serpentine bodies and limbs of the figures all seem to crackle with the electricity of a storm about to burst.

The Vision of St. John (Opening of the Fifth Seal), 1614, by El Greco

El Greco worked in Spain but came from Crete, and may have been influenced by the highly stylized traditions of Eastern Orthodox art.  He was certainly an outlier in his era, as a main movement in the 17th century was towards more realism.  Many artists of the time specialized in illusionistic rendering of subtle light effects, as in this candlelit scene by van Honthorst.  I love the way the warm candlelight glows on the face and breast of the female figure, while the male in the foreground is just a black silhouette with a rim of light suggesting his features.

The Matchmaker, 1625, by Gerrit van Honthorst

Georges de La Tour did many paintings with very convincing candlelight or lamplight effects.  His style is serene, his compositions spare and elegant. The flame below is so beautifully rendered that it actually seems to be emitting light.

Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, 1640, by Georges de La Tour

Many of Vermeer’s paintings show interior scenes lit by daylight coming laterally through windows.  The light effects are observed with great accuracy, including subtleties like the warm-toned light reflected from the table top onto the wall beneath the window, and the way the window light reveals the texture of the wall and map behind the young woman.

Officer and Laughing Girl, 1655, by Johannes Vermeer

Goya’s paintings of terror and madness often use harsh, dramatic lighting.  This scene of abduction by flying witches looks like a night scene illuminated by a spotlight or a bolt of lightning from above.  The contrasty lighting leaves many details in darkness – the deep shadows where horrors lurk.

Flying Witches (Vuelo de Brujas), 1797, by Francisco Goya

In Blake’s depiction of necromancy, the conjured spirit of the prophet Samuel shines as a column of light in the darkness, casting his fearsome glow on the crouching figures of King Saul and the Witch of Endor.

The Witch of Endor Raising the Spirit of Samuel, 1800, by William Blake

The painting below may be a self-portrait by Marie-Denise Villers.  I’ve found very few images of other works by this painter, but this piece is a wonderful depiction of the penetrating gaze of an artist.  The window-light coming from behind the artist makes her golden ringlets and white gown glow, and the light reflects from the drawing paper to softly bathe her face from below – a very unusual choice for a portrait, but here the effect highlights both her youthful beauty and her eyes looking into your depths.  (This painting has always been one of my favorites at the Metropolitan Museum.)

Young Woman Drawing, 1801, by Marie-Denise Villers

Ingres’ painting shows a Scottish bard dreaming of the characters of Celtic myth, bathed in  a mysterious beam of light that seems to glow from inside the circle of figures.

The Dream of Ossian, 1813, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Friedrich specialized in romantic landscapes where human figures are dwarfed by mysterious environments that seem filled with spirits.  All of his paintings have wonderfully rendered effects of light and air.

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, c. 1830, by Caspar David Friedrich

In this masterful depiction of a glowing golden sunset, also by Friedrich, the figures are bathed in a diffuse backlight and the skylight both reflects off the surface of the water (especially in the foreground) and shines through its translucency (especially in the distance).

The Stages of Life, 1835, by Caspar David Friedrich

Turner took the study of light and its interaction with air and water, smoke and rain, in a radically abstract direction.  This swirling composition can be appreciated as pure paint and gesture like abstract expressionism, but the image of the boat, barely visible in the tempest, gives it even more depth and motion.

Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwick, 1842, by J. M. W. Turner

Bierstadt’s grand landscapes often feature special lighting effects.  In this one I like the interaction of the red firelight and the greenish glow of the full moon.

Oregon Trail, 1863, by Albert Bierstadt

Monet’s entire long career is a study of natural light in all its variations.  The details don’t matter in the example below, but the differences between the shaded foreground and the sunlit background, and how the colors and tones of all these areas are fragmented in reflections on the water surface are both vivid and subtle.

La Grenouillere, 1869, by Claude Monet 

Caillebotte was also a great observer of light.  Look at how the light gives form to the foreshortened bare backs of the workers, and how the light reflects differently off the glossy and non-glossy parts of the floor.

The Floor Strippers, 1875, by Gustave Caillebotte

Degas often depicted subtle effects of lighting through variations in color rather than just variations in value.  Some of the shadows on the bather’s body have a greenish tone, while others have a reddish tinge.  Even though the detail and chiaroscuro are fairly minimal here, the body has a great feeling of three-dimensional presence.

The Tub, 1886, by Edgar Degas

Sargent’s watercolors are even looser with the detail, but wonderfully capture the qualities of light, as in this scene of a mother and baby, their faces obscured in the shade of a tent while their bodies are in sunlight.

Bedouin Mother, 1905, by John Singer Sargent

Monet’s later work uses much more vivid colors than his early work.  They blend in the eye, in a way that looks realistic from a distance.

The Grand Canal, 1908, by Claude Monet

Bonnard was always interested in color effects.  Some of his later works dispense with light-dark contrasts so much that they’re almost unreadable in black-and-white reproductions.  This one, though, still has chiaroscuro.  The figure is deeply shadowed, but she’s surrounded by light and color.

Model in Backlight, 1908, by Pierre Bonnard

Here’s another Sargent.  With minimal detail, he gives us the effects of sunlight dappled through leaves and skipping off the surface of water.

The Bathers, 1917, by John Singer Sargent

This is the only purely nonobjective piece in this post.  Paul Klee brought a deep study of color and light to his playful abstractions, which often suggest an inner glow, or the effects of light passing through translucent colored glass.

Eros, 1923, by Paul Klee

Ivan Albright used chiaroscuro not to show the form of his figures, but to show the texture.  The effect is grotesque and cruel, like a contrasty photograph that reveals every wrinkle and pore, but it also has a powerful luminous effect.

Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, 1930, by Ivan Albright

Hopper was famous for his studies of light and shadow, both sunlight and nighttime artificial light effects.  His treatment of light always seems to create an impression of empty space around his subjects.

Summer Evening, 1947, by Edward Hopper

Here George Tooker places some of his figures in deep shade under the Coney Island boardwalk, and other figures in full sun.  Notice the central reclining male figure in the dark foreground, with one leg in the sun.  The shadowy figures also help make the blue sky look luminous.

Coney Island, 1948, by George Tooker

In “The Waiting Room:, Tooker depicts a very different light atmosphere, the sickly fluorescent overhead glow permeating a dehumanizing institutional space.  These two pictures embody polar extremes of the modern urban experience, and the quality of the light in each piece defines its spirit.

The Waiting Room, 1957, by George Tooker

I’ll conclude with a magnificent chiaroscuro nude by Andrew Wyeth.  The light and shadow make the figure tangible.  The woman’s face turns into the darkness, which is mysterious space.  A photograph of this scene, exposed to keep detail in the sunlit areas, might look like this, with deep black shadows all around, but the human eye would naturally see detail in the darker areas.  The artist has chosen to surround his subject in pitch black, all the brighter to make the light.

Lovers, 1981, by Andrew Wyeth

All of the illustrations in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the images will take you to the sites where I found them, and in many cases to larger versions of the pictures.

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