During the Renaissance, many artists began exploring the effects that they could achieve by using high contrast in their works. It began as a way of giving a greater sense of volume to objects. By increasing the sense of shadows and highlights, the artist could create the illusion of physicality. But of course, one thing lead to another, and artists found that they could also increase the sense of drama in a composition by heightening the contrast between light and dark spaces in the work.
This technique came to be called “chiaroscuro”, an Italian word made from combining “chiaro” meaning “light, clear” with “oscuro” meaning “obscure, dark”.
When you look at a picture using chiaroscuro effects you can see the hints of elements in the dark portions of the work. Often the revelation of the nature of an object lies in the places where the edges of light and dark meet.
Giovanni Baglione used chiaroscuro in his work “Sacred Love and Profane Love”, in 1602.
In the work, an angelic figure steps between the lower figures of Cupid and the devil, separating the two. The heavily dark background increases the drama of the brightly lit angel stepping forward. A splash of light on the angel’s wing sends the viewer’s eyes back to the angel’s concerned expression. The bright loop of the angel’s pose and the body of the befuddled Cupid, keep the attention focused on their connection, while the darker figure of the devil is forced to blend into the background. Here the contrast of the light and dark help the artist convey the meaning he wished to get across: that Sacred Love can protect Profane (here meaning simply “worldly”) Love from engaging with the devil.
When an abstract artist uses high contrast, there might not be so much storytelling going on. Unless the artist gives the viewer a clue in the title of the work.
Diana Hobson’s 2011 piece “Danae” promises such an interaction.
At first glance, the viewer sees the high contrast of gold colored lines coming into a dark background, lying over a brighter red oval. The contrast strengthens the impression that the gold bars are an active force in the composition. But if the viewer also knows the story of Danae, their pleasure in this energetic abstract piece can be increased.
Danae was the only child of the greek king, Acrisius. A prophecy had told him that his daughter’s son would kill him. Since at the time she had no children, Acrisius decided to try and beat fate by locking her up in a dark tower so she’d never be seen and thus have no children. She was rather beautiful , after all. The god Zeus, however, was not hindered by such things as locked, dark towers. He noticed Danae’s beauty one day, and paid her a romantic visit by entering the tower in the form of a golden shower of rain. From their union, the hero Perseus was born. Perseus went on to do such things as defeating Medusa, rescuing Andromeda, and accidentally and unknowingly killing his own grandfather.
All from some streaks of gold falling into a dark environment.
You can find more of Diana Hobson’s works of fine abstract art at the Diana Hobson Fine Art on Abbot Kinney in Venice, any day of the week.
“Sacred Love and Profane Love”, by Giovanni Baglione, currently located at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Image of this public domain work used under Fair Use permissions, for instruction.
“Danae”, by Diana Hobson, copyright Diana Hobson. Used by Permission.