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Archive for April 3rd, 2011

When Fredéric Bazille (1841-1870) paints his sleeve, he  wants to create the illusion of roundness and therefore he has to show a sliver of reflected light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In the engraving of The Death of Mary, Martin Schongauer (1450-1491) stops his burin (engraving tool) before he gets to the edge of the kneeling leg because in order to show  that the calf muscles are round, he has to leave that strip of reflected light.

 

 

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In the Middle Ages, the appreciation of the roundness of flesh is discouraged by the ecclesiastical powers that commission art works.  Therefore, reflected light is out the window, so to speak.  Here in this church fresco from 1164, we get harsh lines outlining some sorrowful faces that enact a didactic story for our instruction.  But, it’s safe to say, not for our enjoyment.

 

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When we skip the dour Dark Ages and let in the fresh air of the pagans, we discover the healthy-body-in-a-healthy-mind culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Though we know of their flesh and drapery loving art primarily through sculptures, some of their frescoes did survive centuries of destruction by warfare and weather.  When we look closely, we can see that they knew about painting reflected light.

We have no name for the artist who painted this languid torso. Whoever he was, he was a student of light and how it plays on round forms.  It’s only through careful observation of direct and reflected light that the illusion of a round form can be created on a flat surface.

This pursuit of light effects on round flesh and clinging and billowing cloth became one of the obsessions of Renaissance painters (the other being perspective).  Creating the illusion of roundness on a flat surface (painting, drawing)  demands much concentration, skill and perseverance; a future post here will take a look at the technical demands. Soon.

In the middle of the 19th century, with the beginnings of Modernism and the influence of Asian art on Western painters, the illusion of roundness lost its allure. That, also, is a topic for a future post.

In the meantime, here’s an idea of how to look at paintings to get the importance of reflected light:  just make an exercise of ignoring all other aspects of the work and zoom in on that sliver of light.  Illuminating!

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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