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Shadow Play

At the life class on a dull day, a couple of weeks ago, I was struck by the way the strong light from the work lamp obscured as much of the model’s body as it revealed. Although I’d reduced so much of the figure to black chalk, the imagination still manages to complete the picture, somehow, setting about the task of solving the ‘puzzle’ with the same aptitude that it might the daily crossword or sudoku. Our brains seem to treat so much of life in this way and I’ve discussed the phenomenon known as apophenia in these newsletters before. Coined by the psychiatrist, Klaus Conrad, it’s an “unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness.”  We wouldn’t have astronomy, astrology or calendars or cults without apophenia. Human beings love a good mystery – unless it’s on a plinth or hanging on the wall of an art gallery, usuall

Inventing  Shadow


The Anunciation, Duccio Buoninsegna 1308                           Mourning, Duccio Buoninsegna 1311

Despite the fact that light and shade are inseparable in the natural world, shadows were virtually non-existent in early Renaissance art. The reason was partly technical, as a lot of works were painted directly onto damp plaster and muddy colours were even more of a headache then as they are now, but the scenes artists often depicted, featuring holy beings in other-wordly settings, didn’t really call for a sedulous adherence to realism. Artists knew how to round the figure with an internal shadow, but it wasn’t until after Brunelleschi developed his theory of perspective in 1415 that things really changed. The artist behind that change, unsurprisingly, was Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo intuited that a convincing, three-dimensional rendering of volumetric space would require a thorough understanding of the effects of light and shadow upon that space.


Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo Da Vinci 1491-1508 St.                 John the Baptist, Leonardo Da Vinci 1513-1515

Living in the Shadows












The Taking Of Christ, Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio 1602

A generation  after Leonardo, another Renaissance painting mode, chiaroscuro (light/dark), was employed to hugely dramatic effect by Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s shadows were so extreme and influential, in fact, that they merited an artistic movement of their own, known as Tenebrism. Setting, theme and technique are all perfectly matched in his The Taking Of Christ, a furtive act of betrayal that takes place in deepest shadow. By the time the picture was painted, the subject of betrayal would have been very much on Caravaggio’s mind. As a notorious brawler, who had killed once and would kill again, he had many enemies. Despite powerful friends, the artist was frequently imprisoned and spent the last four years of his tumultuous life on the run. Remarkably, he continued to paint and left many, telling self-portraits in his work, including the one on the right (above), holding a lantern.



The Artist in his Studio, Rembrandt 1628                                   Silver Goblet, Peach, Grapes & Apple, Chardin c.1727

After Caravaggio, paintings are full of shadow for at least two centuries. It’s worth keeping in mind that the world wasn’t the open-all-hours, brightly-lit place it is today and paint technology had yet to be transformed by petrochemicals. Hiding as much as we reveal is a useful way to resolve compositional problems and to add mystery and allure to our pictures, too. As every child knows, there’s often no better way to set the imagination to work than to turn off the bedroom light!



Salisbury Cathedral from the River Avon, John Constable 1820  Chez le Père Lathuille, Manet 1879

During the 1800’s, the gloom begins to lift, however and then, at the end of the century, after the Impressionists have called into question the artificiality and histrionics of academic history painting, shadows in art are as good as banished for a hundred years.

“Light is a thing that cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else – by colour.” Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

Fleeting Shadow

To Paul Cézanne, working on his ‘beau motif’ in the sun-baked vistas of the South of France, shadows seemed an irrelevance.












La Monte St. Victoire, Paul Cézanne 1887













Olive Grove, St Rémy, VIncent Van Gogh 1889

And if sunlight could not be reproduced and had to be replaced by colour, then so too, did shadow. Those realistic portrayals of three-dimensional space that Da Vinci and Brunelleschi had so diligently laboured over, were forsaken for a world of brightly-coloured interconnnecting planes, as bright and flat as a Duccio altar-piece.


Rue d’Arcueil, Matisse 1903                                                          Berkeley #32, Diebenkorn 1955

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