Recently, I was looking through a French magazine from 1928 – L’Illustration – and came across a series of images of the seasons. The artist is not credited, unfortunately, but the work is a lovely example of the chiaroscuro printmaking approach.
Highlight and shadow. Clear and obscure. Chiaroscuro has always been one of my favorite terms and techniques in art. In printmaking specifically, chiaroscuro refers to the use of high contrast tones, usually in a monochromatic field, to indicate volume. The technique goes back to the early 1500s, and began as a method of mimicking in print the look of chiaroscuro drawings.
These artists created so with such a limited tonal palette. So simple, yet so complex.
Since early books were typeset and printed by hand on presses, woodcuts were the best method of illustration. They could be inked and printed repeatedly using the same methods used for printing the type. As long as books were printed on letterpresses, chiaroscuro woodcuts continued to be used.
Each tone required a separate block to be cut. Here are three plates by Christoffel Jegher from The History of Wood Engraving that deconstruct a two-block chiaroscuro woodcut.
Though now largely forgotten as a technique, chiaroscuro was common in illustrations through the early part of the last century, until offset and color lithography printing technology became more common. Woodcuts & Wood Engravings: How I Make Them, by Hans Alexander Mueller (1939), illustrates beautifully how to make complex images from only two layers of color.
It is amazing to see how two flat images can create so much depth when combined.
These two illustrations, from Designs For You – To Trace or Copy by F. J. Garner (1950), also use only two tones to indicate volume and pattern with concise efficiency.
“Bright Water,” by Elton Bennett, is a serigraph print from the later half of the last century. He used only two screens, with some color variation in the ink application of the lighter color, to create this print of water flowing through boulders.
I was inspired to try this chiaroscuro technique in lino-cut for an illustration I did for Unix Magazine many years ago (note the floppy disk).
I think you can still see the influence of chiaroscuro woodcuts in this relief print of mine “Minotaurus” from 2010.
I’m not sure how chiaroscuro could be applied in illustration for children’s books. It seems too monochromatic for today’s day-glo, technically enhanced, 3-D world, but maybe it will be something worth exploring one day as a calmer alternative.