June 24, 2014


        Chiaroscuro (from Italian for “bright-dark”) is the use of strong light and shade in artwork.  In relief printing it is specifically the use of multiple blocks to achieve lighting or shading effects.  Probably invented early in the sixteenth century, these block prints were originally intended to reproduce the look of drawings done on midtone paper, with the artist working in both white and black ink.  The German style usually used a black key block, or line block, with a tone block in some midtone, while the Italian style usually did not have a line block, but used each block for flat areas of different tones.
        This “Scene of Witchcraft” by Hans Baldung looks quite similar to the effect you would get by drawing some white and some black on grey paper, but of course it was printed on white paper with a black block and a grey block.  It’s been carved so that black and white both appear as lots of lines, with relatively few areas of solid tones.  You can also see how Baldung was trying to use the shadows and highlights for drama, which is a characteristic of chiaroscuro art in general.
        The black in “Goddess of the Night” by Hendrick Goltzius is a more traditional key block, showing mostly outlines rather than areas of color.  There are two grey blocks, however, light and medium, to allow for more sense of shadow.  There are two things I particularly like about this one.  First, the bats pulling the wagon - although they’re small, so I feel that four is really not enough.  There should be at least a dozen!  I also like the white symbols arching over the wagon without any black accents, so that they seem to be symbols of light floating in the dark air.  I like the white highlights on the wheels, too.  In fact, I think this one is pretty cool altogether.
        For contrast in technique, Domenico Beccafumi’s image of “St Peter” shows the Italian style, with four blocks in four shades of brown, no black, and no outlines at all.  There’s relatively little paper showing through, making the white (or cream, technically) into a real highlight.  Peter’s face, hands, and feet are very intricately modelled - perhaps unneccesarily so.  Beccafumi may have been showing off a bit.  Impressive it is, 
though.  I was lucky enough to see these last two pieces in person at the MFA, and they are strikingly gorgeous.  Particularly on Peter, the laying on of successive layers of ink is very clear.  There’s slight thickening of the ink at edges of carved lines, slight variations of pressure, and an undeniable sense of skilled hands at work.
        To the extent that chiaroscuro wood block printing techniques were invented to mimic non-woodcut techniques, I always grumble about failing to appreciate the unique and wonderful properties of relief printing.  However, artists very quickly did take these ideas and techniques and begin to explore them in amazing and beautiful ways.

[Pictures: Scene of Witchcraft woodcut in two blocks by Hans Baldung, 1510 (Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art);
Goddess of the Night, woodcut in three blocks by Hendrick Goltzius, c 1594 (Image from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston);
St Peter, woodcut in four blocks by Domenico Beccafumi, 
c 1525-1550 (Image from the Museum of Fine Arts).]


Pax said...

Thanks for this lesson on a form of print art about which I knew nothing. It is such pleasure to read this blog regularly, being introduced to, or reminded of, such a delightful variety of topics. Thanks!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

My pleasure! =)