Assignment 5, subject 2: “A Shadow on His Soul” (including Part 5 project exercises)

Updated on 25 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

19 December 2016. Global politics has a great variety of contibutors many of who who without doubt must be living with a shadow on their souls. I have been interested in persons of that kind for some years now and this is a great opportunity to look for means of depicting such intricate types of shadow. In order to approach this subject in a sensible manner, I would need to see it from different viewpoints. Since also it is quite complex and intangible, I decided to concentrate on the person worrying me most, Bashar al-Assad. My first task in this project was to become acquainted with his biography and identify the major turning points in his career.

I was dismayed to find out that he was only born in 1965, a mere four months ahead of me. Apparently a political career had never been planned for him. He grew up talented and secluded and trained as an eye surgeon with years spent abroad in London. However, as his brother and president-to-be Bassel was killed in a road accident in 1994, Bashar was pushed through military school, not even 30 years old, and inherited the presidency from his iron-fist father, when the latter died in the year 2000. At the age of 35, when most people have not yet matured mentally, he took over his country (and the law had to be changed for him to do so at all!). His western upbringing raised the hope in many that he would be able to induce a change for the better in the conflict-ridden region. Indeed during the first decade under his rule Syria saw signs of economic recovery. Assad was nevertheless unable to overcome the excessive bureaucracy and failed to turn Syria into a trustworthy international player. Controversial actions lead to a gradual deterioration of global connections, while internally the state of human rights remained deplorable. In 2011 events related to the “Arab spring” revolution stimulated the population of Syria into similar actions of protest. Assad promised change, but none of it ever materialised and as protests became more forceful, the international community demanded his resignation. Instead of stepping down, he – with increasing violence and disregard of human life – has been fighting to remain in power ever since ( Editors, 2014).

I ask myself, what kinds of influence would act to turn a trained surgeon with a promising start to his career into the monster he is now. “Risk Factors” as identified in an article in Psychology Today (Seifert, 2013), if outweighing “Protective Factors”, predict violent behaviour. For Bashar al Assad the following apply:

  • a soft and indecisive character
  • being bullied by his brother Bassel at an early age
  • the troubled and distant relationship to his emotionally absent father
  • being under the additional influence of both a dominant mother (who in Arab cultures is not to be questioned) and older sister
  • being the sibling of another intelligent but cruel brother, Maher, who continues to have immense influence on the decisions made by Bashar
  • a familiy history of violence
  • a family supporting and promoting aggression in order to retain the status of power and wealth

I would add, from intuition, several more risk factors:

  • racist schooling
  • being fill-in choice after his brother’s death
  • the less than ideal training as a politician and military leader
  • the unability to follow his true calling as a doctor
  • the unexpected emotional vehemence of calls for change following Assad’s first cautious intellectually driven steps

To me, the main factor seems Assad’s naturally soft character. All of the other influences act and grow on that. Looking at a series of photos taken at various ages this softness is evident and, incredibly, still visible also in the most recent pictures. What does apparent softness include? It seems that it is often a dreamy expression, absent-mindedness, as e.g. depicted in “Despair” by Glennda Field (Field, 2012) and a slightly worried/troubled look.

30 December 2016. Searching for other artists to approach this subject, I found a number of interesting solutions. In classical portraits the use of chiaroscuro provides a great means of playing, literally and figuratively, with the light and the dark side of a person, e.g. this wonderful self portrait by Rembrandt (1606-1669, The Netherlands) (Fig. 1):

Figure 1. Rembrandt: “Self-portrait”, 1628/29, oil on oak panel. Source: Rembrandt (1606-1669) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
In the above, I cannot feel any negative emotions, only a pleasant sort of composure and interest in the subject. This is of course not what I am looking for. What I probably need is not the normal absent-mindedness we all know, but a person who is literally “beside himself”. I have seem weird portraits before, where the facial expression is disturbingly out of focus by superimposing two of more slightly laterally displaced images of the face. In looking for examples for the above I came across the Swedish painter Benjamin Björklund (*?) (n.d.(a)) who has developed a great skill at depicting what I am after, see e.g. Björklund, n.d.(b)) or Björklund (2015). Francis Bacon’s (1909-1992, UK) portraits came to my mind as well, but his approach seems distinct from my own. When looking at his large number of self-portraits and portraits of Lucian Freud the introduced distortions appear (if only to me) not to be connected with the goal of bringing the dark parts of a soul to the surface. Shadows on souls are however usually depicted with a sad expression, which is not exactly what I am after. In the available photos Assads rarely appears sad, rather distant and/or disinterested, as if the consequences of his doings were of no concern to him.

14 January 2017. I decided that it would be worth a try with transparent layers of acrylic binder alternating with acrylic paint to build a soul visible within a portrait experiment (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Sketchbook – Showing a soul inside, acrylic binder and acrylic

The scan of the above image is unfortunately quite inadequate in reproducing the transparent, layered quality of the tested fields of colour. By far the best result for my purpose was the top lefthand, alternating thin layers of binder and very dilute paint, covered by a final layer of binder, then the actual portrait painted on top of that.

Next I tried to integrate a representation of something like a “soul” behind the face. Using acrylic binder again I prepared a smooth, rounded and weak body shape enclosed in protective “shells”, dripped some dilute paint on the half-dried shape, used a painting knife to alter the structure, allowed it to become dry, then quickly painted some face over and outside that. When looking at the result in my sketchbook it looks rather disappointing, but the scan (see image below) exhibits some of the qualities I am looking for, especially round the nose and mouth. There is something alive, which appears to agitate the facial expression from within. This would be exactly what I need, but I I feel that I am not yet expert enough to tame my acrylic binder (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Sketchbook – Creating the impression of something alive behind a facial facade

17 January 2017. In order to see whether I could develop my idea in a direction, which is less accident-prone, I went ahead with my  idea of looking into producing something like a “runny” face, i.e. one that is not totally in the possession of its owner, but leaving its boundaries. The face is the preeminent place where to study the character of a person, so letting it run down the canvas means weakening its physical features. First I produced a thin background layer of acrylic binder, into which I made dense vertical grooves with a toothed spatula (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Creating a background on 56 x 42 cm primed acrylic paper: Acrylic binder and toothed spatula

While waiting for the background become thoroughly dry, I made a first pencil sketch in my sketchbook in order to become acquainted with drawing a distant, distracted look. It was not really the best of my portraying days (normally no problem at all to get real likenesses), but likeness was not my main subject (Fig. 5):

Figure 5. Sketchbook – preliminary pencil sketch of facial features

I guess he looks more like Johnny English. Since both of them are great at causing havoc I let it count towards developing my plan …

Next I started my runny portrait, painting with drawing ink and a pipette, to be followed by acrylic, in order to make things difficult for myself :o) (Fig. 6-13):

Figure 6
Figure 7
Figure 8
Figure 9
Figure 10
Figure 11
Figure 12
Figure 13

21 January 2017. In retrospect painting over the runny face interrupted the initial idea somewhat, but I like how the eyes and mouth are still part of the idea. It was also great fun to work over the first layer, it was highly spontaneous. Since, however, I still wanted to explore the idea further and make it the main focus of this part of the assignment, I started two more runny faces, one on an impasto background I had prepared with household dispersion a few days earlier and one with several types and colours of drawing ink on a large sheet of plastic, which I had saved from an ugly frame years ago. The first experiment was to see whether I could paint with my pipette on a very rough surface, the second to see whether plastic was at all suitable for ink and also to combine it with another sheet of plastic to stick underneath and serve as a surface for Assad’s soul.

So, here is the first sequence. The combination of rough surface with channels and a pipette was very difficult to use to create likenesses. But together with a final ink layer put on with a larger flat paintbrush it came near enough to what Assad looks like (Fig. 14-20):

Figure 14. Creating another background with acrylic paint and serrated spatula
Figure 15. Drawing with water-soluble ink and pipette
Figure 16.  Dissolving some of the ink
Figure 17


Figure 18
Figure 19. Finished painting, testing lighting conditions (1)

Since there was beautiful sunshine that day I experimented with the light falling on the grooves in order to find out whether an increase in contrast would add to the shadow on Assad’s soul. It did not. The first, duller, photo came closer to what I needed. So, overall, I would not recommend this sort of background to paint someone shunning contact with other people:

Figure 20. Finished painting, testing lighting conditions (2)

By the way, the sunshine came together with the most beautiful snow. This was the view from my workshop and I just had to share it:


And turning to the final “runny face” experiment I tried out the plastic sheet (A1) mentioned above. It was very awkward to paint and draw on, again with my pipette and a flat brush, and quite difficult to take meaningful photos of, but proved an extremely interesting experience (Fig. 21-22):

Figure 21. Drawing on acetate with drawing ink and pipette (stage 1)
Figure 22. Drawing on acetate with drawing ink and pipette (stage 2)

After this stage I prepared another piece of plastic, smaller and flexible, with a layer of drawing ink and let it dry (Fig. 23):

Figure 23. A4 plastic pocket opened up and covered in drawing ink

Next I covered the face in a semi-transparent wash of white drawing ink, looking like this on my workshop floor … (Fig. 24):

Figure 24. Adding white drawing ink to the portrait

… then like this with a white canvas put underneath (Fig. 25):

Figure 25. Testing the effect of placing a white canvas underneath

Trying to make it look more like Assad again (Fig. 26):

Figure 26. Adding more Assad-like features

When that was done I slipped in the flexible, smaller piece of plastic to see whether it was causing any effect filing with “putting a shadow on his soul”. While the result looked more like someone emerging from a hard day’s work in a coal mine, I was happy that there was indeed a layering effect. The face looks as if something was moving around “inside” it (Fig. 27-28).

Figure 27. Starting to experiment with acetate and plastic sheet combined
Figure 28. Detail

I then reworked the small plastic sheet to make it darker and more of a coherent shape and tested that in several positions (Fig. 29-34):

Figure 29. Reworked plastic sheet
Figure 30. Testing the effect of the reworked plastic sheet (1)
Figure 30. Testing the effect of the reworked plastic sheet (2)


Figure 32. Testing the effect of the reworked plastic sheet (3)

None of the above made a real difference except that Assad looked like being in need of a shave, but once I included the forehead I could see that there was a major change to his facial expression, which became rather grave (Fig.33):

Figure 33. Testing the effect of the reworked plastic sheet (4)

The last of my tests seems to be the best. It is a combination of something dark both behind the forehead and to the inside of where Assads has directed his eyes (difficult to explain …). For some reason it feels believable to me and this is what I am going to stay with (Fig. 34):

Figure 34. Testing the effect of the reworked plastic sheet (5)

In the above I think that I can sort of feel a “centre of weight” right between the eyebrows. I am not normally into esoteric stuff, but after a bit of research what did I find? In exactly that position on the forehead there is the third eye, which serves as the entrance to your soul. How weird.

Apart from likenesses I am quite happy with the three results in this part. All of them appear to transport, to greater or lesser extent, an impression of a troubled soul. Given the time I may continue working on them before submitting for assessment.

References: Editors (2014) Bashar al-Assad Biography [online]. A&E Television Networks, New York, 2 April. Available at: [Accessed 19 December 2016]

Björklund, B. (n.d.(a)) Paintings [image collection] [online]. Benjamin Björklund, Uppsala. Available at: [Accessed 30 December 2016]

Björklund, B. (2015) Paintings: Kristoffer Bolander: I Forgive Nothing [n.k.] [online]. Benjamin Björklund, Uppsala. Available at: [Accessed 30 December 2016]

Björklund, B. (n.d.(b)) Self Portrait [image collection] [online]. Benjamin Björklund, Uppsala. Available at: [Accessed 30 December 2016]

Field, G. S. (2012) Despair. Watercolor class demonstration paintings from Spring term 2012 [blog] [online]. Glennda Short Field, 26 June. Available at: [Accessed 19 December 2016]

Rembrandt (1628-29) Self-portrait [oil on oak panel] [online]. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Available at:,_by_Rembrandt.jpg [Accessed 30 December 2016]

Seifert, K. (2013) How Bashar al-Assad Became A Brutal Dictator. Those Who Fail To Learn From History Are Doomed To Repeat it [online]. Psychology Today, New York, 16 September. Available at: [Accessed 19 December 2016]


Research point: Still life

Updated on 20 February 2017 (Harvard referencing and reworking of contents).

14 April 2016. While in the everyday world we have everything but a still life it is an attractive idea to sit down and do some research on just that, objects around us taken and captured for what a human mind might call an eternity, by the means of paint.

On the Tate homepage I found a most to the point definition of still life: “One of the principal genres (subject types) of Western art – essentially, the subject matter of a still life painting or sculpture is anything that does not move or is dead” (Tate, n.d.). What seems commonplace from a 21st century viewpoint was revolutionary at the time the genre was developed. Until the 17th century only a few privileged private persons or institutions like the church or royalty could afford paintings at all. With the rise of the new merchant class in the Netherlands they came within reach of a wider public and so subjects changed away somewhat from the traditional demonstrating of ruling power. Still lifes thus became immensely popular with both artists as a field of experimentation and budding art lovers, who were without doubt introduced to a radically different concept of seeing the world around them.

17 April 2016. Having a closer look at the history of still life painting I react in the same way as I used to when I was still a child. I cannot keep my eyes off the breathtaking arrangements, the incredible translation of light into paint, and still … The French “nature morte” is for me exactly what I feel when looking at still life arrangements. There is, maybe only for me, something dead about the objects, whether tools of everyday use, fruit, vegetables or animals. There is a feeling of abandonment, not as if the owner of the objects had just left the room to go for a walk, but as if they had been interrupted in a feast by some invisible disaster. They remind me of the famous 1957 novel by Nevil Shute “On the Beach”, where after an unprecedented nuclear war the last people alive on Earth await their certain end by radiation sickness. Shute describes such abandoned places in his novel. Briefly I thought of including the novel in my planning for Assignment 2, but a short read made me aware that as things are I may not be strong enough mentally. Never mind, back to the 17th century.

I started my journey with one of the most renowned of the Dutch still life painters, Willem Kalf (1619-1693) (Fig. 1):

Figure 1. Willem Kalf: “Still Life with Fruit, Glassware, and a Wan-li Bowl” (1659″, oil on canvas. Source: Willem Kalf (1619-1693) [Public domain] via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I cannot help but admire the wonderful use of the chiaroscuro technique in the chosen painting above. The objects are arranged, before a very dark background which makes no other contribution to the painting except being the background, in a pyramid shape, where from the base upwards the objects become increasingly delicate until there is nothing but a reflection on glass to form the tip of the pyramid. Although the bowl containing fruit is tilted to the left, there is an incredible balance in the arrangement. Neither the folded carpet in the foreground not its counterpart in balance, the illuminated corner of the table with some wonderfully delicate piece of jewellery (probably an earring or similar), would be believable without its counterpart. Interestingly, the earring itself has a further counterpart in balance in the bright reflection off the glass of white wine. If I cover it with a finger, the reflection on the glass of white wine is directly affected, the balance of the painting is thereby pushed towards the left. If on the other hand, the reflection is covered, the overall balance of the painting seems undisturbed, but one of the main points of interest is suddenly gone. What I learn from looking at this painting is that it takes outstanding sensitivity to create, control and paint an arrangement in such a way. The objects interact with one another in a multitude of ways, none of which can be omitted or replaced without unbalancing the composition and very likely its hidden meaning. The peeled lemon, and other fruit, are some of the many symbols used by painters of the time to point out the ephemeral nature of life (commonly known as “vanitas paintings”). Other symbols include skulls, musical instruments, all sorts of dead animals and plants, smoke or objects measuring time.

In contrast to the above is another still life painting, this time by Jan Weenix (ca. 1641?-1719) (Fig. 2):

Figure 2. Jan Weenix: “Gamepiece with a Dead Heron (“Falconer’s Bag”)”, 1695, oil on canvas. Source: Jan Weenix (ca. 1641?-1719) [Public Domain] via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Although in the above painting without doubt both arrangement and painting are delicate and breathtakingly realistic, and while the objects depicted are full of meaning and the background provides an idealized landscape, I do not feel the same awe as with Kalf’s much more reduced approach. Maybe again it is just me who as an ecologist prefers life to hunter-inflicted death, but there is also too much of everything packed on the canvas, just as if Weenix had wanted to impress his viewers by saying: “Look here, I can do this, and this as well, and this, and that …”

A representative flower painting from the 17th century was created by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678) (Fig. 3):

Figure 3. Jan Brueghel the Younger: “A Basket of Flowers”, 1620s?, oil on wood. Source: Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678) [Public domain] via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Again, and probably due to my modern biologist’s training, I would rather want to see the overwhelming number of different flowers in their respective habitats or a garden. The arrangement itself however is wonderful, light and colours carefully balanced, and the characteristics of each species faithfully reproduced, including even some visiting insects. At the time of painting the approach will have been nothing less but revolutionary, going hand in hand with the increased interest in the workings of nature, the beginnings of explorer travelling and the early approach to understanding nature. The latter was fuelled by the feeling of living on a vast planet with endless resources, most yet undiscovered and undescribed and by an urge to collect and bring back home and own much, much more of what was found than was would in the end be needed (own experience gained over a long period of time when working in our local natural science museum). Not surprisingly the whole was, as always, another expression of power. Coming to think of that, most still lifes of the time will have served exactly that purpose after all.

During the 18th century still life painting techniques were, from what I could find, not much changed if somewhat less sombre concerning their backgrounds, so that I omit examples from that period. A number of examples can be found on Wikimedia Commons (2016).

In the 19th century there was a side by side existence of traditional still life painting with a tendency to be more adventurous regarding both style and subject. For example, the  “Mound of Butter” by Antoine Vollon (1833-1900) (Fig. 4) has all the traditional characteristics including a dark background, a staggered arrangement, both front to back and bottom to top and a carefully balanced position of the objects, but although Vollon was a realist painter, the brushstrokes appear impressionist. Both eggs and butter might of course be interpreted as vanitas symbols.

Figure 4. Antoine Vollon: “Mound of Butter”, 1875/1885, oil on canvas. Source: Antoine Vollon (1833-1900) [Public domain] via the National Gallery of Art

In contrast to the above Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890, Netherlands) in one of his “violent” still lifes below disregarded all conventions (Fig. 5): viewpoint from above, seemingly arbirary arrangement in more or less two dimensions, light background, fierce brushstrokes draw the view towards the centre and by means of what I would call “lines of energy” back out towards the edges. Some of the fruit and leaves appear not to lie on a firm surface, so I suspect that what looks like waves may well be shallow water.

Figure 5. Vincent Van Gogh: “Grapes, Lemons, Pears and Apples”, 1887, oil on canvas. Source: Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) [Public domain] via Art Institute Chicago

One of the highly productive still life painters of the 19th century leading far into the 20th century was Henri Matisse (1869-1954, France). While his approach was somewhat more traditionalist, Matisse was highly interested in including background and further surroundings in the arrangement. He played with patterns of cloth and walls and was much less interested in the realistic reproduction of natural characteristics than in expressing a feeling coming with an arrangement. In the early painting below (Fig. 6) that particular morning light (I may be wrong) comes with a wisp of summer air hovering above the arrangement with a hint of freshly made coffee. But even in this case, strangely enough, I have a feeling that someone just left the breakfast table for good, never to return.

Figure 6. Henri Matisse: “Fruit and Coffeepot”, c.1898, oil on canvas. Source: Henri Matisse (1869-1954) [Public domain] via the State Art Museum

See in comparison one of his later still lifes “Large Red Interior” (Matisse, 1948), where the play with patterns is pushed very far. I get the impression that the whole room became a pattern itself in the process. This painting could not be further from the early Dutch approach.

The same could be said of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973, Spain) and Georges Braque (1882-1963, France) during their Cubist periods. In the painting below by Georges Braque (Fig. 7), the real boundaries of objects are dissolved and rearranged in a more abstracted manner, while a three-dimensional representation was not intended. Is is rather that it was attempted to include the information taken from several viewpoints in order to create an increased density of knowledge about an object to be transported to the viewer (The Art Story, n.d.):

Figure 7. Georges Braque: “Still Life with Clarinet”, 1927, oil on canvas. Source: Georges Braque (1882-1963) [Fair Use] via Philips Collection

Today, the drawing and painting of still lifes is still considered essential in mastering all the basic techniques required of a painter. The professionally created arrangements are, however, much more adventurous, mostly less aimed at faithfully reproducing nature or exploring the characteristics of paint and light, but there to provoke unusual thought and illusions, e.g. this collection of Postmodern Still Life (Pinterest, 2016):

Finally here comes a selection from Saatchi online gallery illustrating some more of today’s diverse still life landscape. I made the choice not with favourites in mind, but to show a small potpourri of possibilities: “Still Life” (van de Lande, n.d.), “Something Like a Still Life” (Edmunds, 2015), “Still Life with Check Tablecloth” (McEwan, n.d.), “Plastic Animal Still Life with Leopard Print Cloth” (Ridley, n.d.), “21st Century Still Life” (Hinojos, n.d.), “Blue Still Life (Puyandaev, n.d.) or “Box and Nail Box Still Life Square” McHarrie (n.d.).


Braque, G. (1927) Still Life with Clarinet [oil on canvas] [online] Philips Collection, Washington, DC. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Brueghel the Younger, J. (1620s?) A Basket of Flowers [oil on wood] [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Edmunds, B. (2015) Something Like a Still Life [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Hinojos, J.A. (n.d.) 21st Century Still Life [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Kalf, W. (1659) Still Life with Fruit, Glassware, and a Wan-li Bowl [oil on canvas] [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Lande, van de, P. (n.d.) Still Life [acrylic on wood] [online] [n.k.] Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Matisse, H. (c.1898) Fruit and Coffeepot [oil on canvas] [online]. State Art Museum, St Petersburg. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Matisse, H. (1948) Large Red Interior [oil on canvas] [online] Georges Pompidou Center, Paris. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

McEwan, S. (n.d.) Still Life with Check Tablecloth [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

McHarrie, S. (n.d.) Box and Nail Box Still Life Square [acrylic on wood] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Pinterest (2016) Postmodern Still Life [online]. Avaliable at: %5BAccessed 20 February 2017]

Puyandaev, V. (n.d.) Blue Still Life [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Ridley, T. (n.d.) Plastic Animal Still Life with Leopard Print Cloth [oil and MDF on wood] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Shute, N. (1957) On the Beach. Pan Books, London.

Tate (n.d.) Still life [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.) Cubism [online]. The Art Story. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Van Gogh, V. (1887) Grapes, Lemons, Pears and Apples [oil on canvas]. Art Institute Chicago. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Vollon, A. (1875/1885) Mound of Butter [oil on canvas] [online]. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Weenix, J. (1695) Gamepiece with a Dead Heron (“Falconer’s Bag”) [oil on canvas] [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Wikimedia Commons (2016) Category:18th-century still-life paintings [online] Wikimedia Commons. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Research point: Chiaroscuro

Updated on 19 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

13 March, 2016. The term “Chiaroscuro”, meaning “light-dark” in Italian, is a powerful means of contrasting and linking light and dark areas in a painting. Several drawing and painting techniques such as hatching, stippling and washes are suitable to use the chiaroscuro effect to suggest volume. This excludes a mere difference between a dark background and a bright foreground, but rather requires the depicted volume itself to show some gradation between light and dark areas (The National Gallery, 2017).
I had a look at several artists using chiaroscuro and found that I liked those paintings most, where the effect was not used only to produce dramatic lighting, but where it is a believable and intrinsic part of the scene. I may be wrong, but e.g. in the following painting (Fig. 1) (Baglione, 1602) the effect, while looking great, is there for drama only, but as far as I can see has no part in the story :

Figure 1. Giovanni Baglione: Sacred Love and Profane Love, 1602, oil on canvas. Source: Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

In the second example by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797, England), the “Orrery” (Wright of Derby, ca. 1766) in Fig. 2 below, on the other hand, the chiaroscuro has a story to tell:

Figure 2. Joseph Wright of Derby: The Orrery, ca. 1766, oil on canvas. Source: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

When I started exploring the works of Caravaggio (1571-1610) I found that I was unable to look at the many cruel scenes, but found one work in particular very appealing regarding its intriguing lighting conditions, “The Calling of Saint Matthew” (Caravaggio, ca. 1599-1600) (Fig. 3 below). While on the righthand side the light comes into the room from above, the persons in the shade immediately below are exposed to an extreme chiaroscuro effect, while it is much subdued in the direct light between the people sitting at the table. This makes the composition very lively and also helps the viewer’s eye to be guided through the painting. The direction of the light coming in from the right follows that of the outstretched hand of Jesus immmediately below and thereafter illuminates Saint Matthew’s own hand and face. There is no mistaking the story:

Figure 3. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: The Calling of Saint Matthew, ca. 1599-1600, oil on canvas. Source: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Looking at Tintoretto’s (1518-1594, Italy) work it is immediately obvious that he, born more than 50 years before Caravaggio, was still very much a Renaissance artist, while Caravaggio already helped prepare the way into the Baroque. For me it is fascinating to get reminded of the rapid and often fierce development of art going own during that short period of time. Chiaoscuro was probably not as prominent in Tintoretto’s work and, in my opinion, did not seem to be celebrated by him as a tool serving to increase drama: In his “Last Supper” (Tintoretto, 1592-94) below, for example, the many glorioles and bodyless heavenly creatures populating the dark background reduce the effect:

Figure 4. Jacopo Tintoretto: Last Supper, 1592-94, oil on canvas, 365 x 568 cm (!). Source: Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) born only a few years after Caravaggio, but living for many decades longer than the latter, developed to become a truly Baroque painter. In his self-portrait, whose expression admittedly I do not like, the weighting of the chiaroscuro across the canvas is visible as in Caravaggio’s painting above (Rubens, 1623) (Fig. 5):

Figure 5. Peter Paul Rubens: Portrait of the Artist, 1623, oil on panel. Source: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Since I also wanted to see how chiaroscuro still has a prominent place in modern art I tried to get an overview over the many different techniques and styles. It is most obvious in portrait photography, and in black-and white films, most famously e.g. in “The Third Man”, but also in countless painted examples. One lecture on chiaroscuro by J.B. Treadwell (n.d.) I found highly instructive at the time of writing this post, but sadly has disappeared from the web (Treadwell, 2016), but it is worth having a look at the collection of posts on Pinterest (Pinerest, 2017).

It is very likely, since the effect is so stunning, that not many artists, except for those working in completely abstract ways, will deliberately forgo the use of chiaroscuro in their work. Indeed, after having spent two very rewarding hours looking at extremes of light and darkness, my own surroundings look curiously flat. Will have to do something about that ;o).


Baglione, G. (1602) Sacred Love and Profane Love [oil on canvas] [online]. Gallerie Nationale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

da Caravaggio, M. M. (ca. 1599-1600) The Calling of Saint Matthew [oil on canvas] [online]. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Pinterest (2017) Chiaroscuro examples [online]. Pinterest. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Rubens, P. P. (1623) Portrait of the Artist [oil on canvas] [online]. Royal Collection. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

The National Gallery (2017) Glossary: Chiaroscuro [online]. The National Gallery, London. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Tintoretto, J. (1592-94) The Last Supper [oil on canvas] [online]. San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Treadwell, B.T. (n.d.) (lecture on chiaroscuro) [online]. Available at: [13 March 2016]

Wright of Derby, J. (ca. 1766) The Orrery [oil on canvas] [online]. Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby. Available at:,_The_Orrery.jpg [Accessed 19 February 2017]