This project starts by considering how the illusion of a 3D space floating within a 2D surface can be achieved by carving form into a laid down surface of charcoal and then developing further tone and form.
The use of charcoal dust and a rubber gives a dreamy, soft focus effect which reminds me strongly of the drawings of Seurat. He worked the other way about, gradually adding conte crayon to his support, but eschewing the use of any line. Both techniques lend themselves to the representation of chiaroscuro, high contract modelling of form using oblique light against a dark background. Suerat made great use of rich velvety black background and shadows with subtle highlights to describe form. There are no identifiable individual marks and edges are soft, implying surfaces gently curving away from the observer into the space beyond the picture plane.
Degas used chiaroscuro widely in his drawings at the theatre, with dancers against the stage lights and in his low lit interior scenes. However, in his large scale paintings and drawings, he often combined this with a defining line. His monoprints are a direct expression of light modelling form and were produced subtractively by rolling a plate with ink which he then wiped and drew into in direct response to the play of light. Later, in the mid 1990s, he was to pursue the same oblique lighting in dark interiors in his photography. He commented to a friend about the technical difficulties of achieving his objectives; “Daylight gives me no problem” he said. “What I want is difficult – the atmosphere of lamps or moonlight” (Daniel, 1998). His monoprints do, indeed, have great atmosphere and intimacy, and the loss of detail inherent in this process only adds to dream-like quality. In working with inked plates and photographic plates, there is much greater jeopardy than than charcoal, since there is no opportunity for revision.
Chiaroscuro also adds drama to even simple compositions. Rembrandt’s early self portrait has great force, often delivered by the treatment of the eyes, but in this case by the fact that he has lit his head at such an angle that the eyes are in shadow.
To explore the use of working onto a white support using a soft medium and no line, I used graphite powder and a brush to pay homage to Rembrandt’s self portrait in my A3 sketchbook. The graphite has a very soft, subtle effect and make very soft marks. The brush moves it around an can dust it off, but you can’t really build it up for dark tones.
I haven’t managed to recreate the likeness, with his snub nose and bravado. I think the tiny details that capture a face are very difficult to bring out with such a soft and imprecise medium. However, it does create is own atmosphere. Working in this medium made me think more of volume and mass, rather than edge shapes.
The graphite is very difficult to fix into the surface. I pressed loose powder down with a palette knife, yielding an interesting variation of mark and tone. I have fixed this drawing with hair spray and will be interested to see if it survives.
Thinking further about portraits in soft volume rather than edges, lead me to Anita Taylor, and her immense self portraits in soft charcoal. She doesn’t cover the whole support in dark tone but draws the volume of the figure and then carves out the features and planes of the face. These are often on a very large scale, allowing great sweeps of charcoal and eraser. She implies the volume of the figure using the directional marks of the charcoal; we know that there is part of the figure beyond the picture plane because the vector of the mark tells us that it is going somewhere that is present but which we cant see.
Line to describe form was also used by Henry Moore. In his drawing ‘Pink and Green Sleepers (1941)’, looking at the pink arm on the right, we can see how he has combined line and tone to create the powerful illusion of 3D form. The strong lines tapper off and disappear in to the dark shadows. The impression of 3D space within the 2D support is strengthened by the layering of marks. Moore and Taylor both use the history of marks, drawn, obliterated and redrawn and layered to create depth.
It is useful to also consider how a sense of depth can be created in other media. The photographer Sally Mann uses tonal contrast combined with soft transitions to create an illusion of space. This is most evident in her landscape photographs, which have very high contrast between the depth of shadow and streaming light. She uses vignetting both at the edge of the image but also at the edge of objects within the image giving the light added strength and direction in contrast to the massed shadows.
One aspect that all these examples have in common is that they are largely monochromatic. Colour, if used, is muted and very limited in palette, allowing the use of absolute black and white. An interesting use of colour to create the illusion of 3 dimensions are the woodcuts of Chuck Close. Whilst creating this illusion, he also clearly demonstrated to us what an illusion is but making the toned ’tiles’ of his image clearly identifiable as individual pieces.
A sense of intrigue and depth is created in Michael Borremans’ drawings by juxtaposing two planes, often on surreal different scales, apparently at right angles using perspective to create the illusion of a space beyond the picture plane. This is heightened by his use of figures, looking in or out of the space, creating a powerful but imaginary space.
I have experimented in my sketchbook with different ways in which I might produce this effect of volume and depth via technique and material.
These small studies informed my decisions when tackling a final piece for this project. In my work, I wanted to use extremes of tone, work in monochrome, think about the treatment of edges, especially receding edges, think about detail, or lack of detail and try and build a complex surface through a history of marks.
Daniel, Malcolm R ; Edgar Degas: Photographer; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y. 1998