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    Lost shadows

Historically, it has been a challenge for artists to caputure the varying luminances of the outside world on canvas. Our eyes can see enormous ranges in brightness, from the dark shadows to bright sunlight. But pigments have a limited range of reflectances.

Medieval paintings look &Mac223;at because medieval artists used a limited range of luminance. Over the years, Madonna has traditionally been portrayed with a dark blue cloak with a red lining or undergown. Artists had difficulty achieving enough luminance range to show shadows in the dark cloak.

  


"Madonna and Child," André Berlinghiero, ca. 1230. In this Byzantine panel painting. The strong emotions, angular face and furrowed brows are typically Byzantine. Madonna's robe is dark and seems flat, because you can barely see the shadows signifying the folds, which are only slightly darker than the rest of her robe.


In the Madonnas shown here, the lighter robes of the other figures and of the Christ Child do show folds that are significantly darker than the rest of the robe. The the lighter robes show a much larger range of contrast than Madonna's darker robe. The only clear hints as to the folding of her robe are the undulations of its gold edging.


"The Madonna in Majesty," Cimabue, ca 1285-6. Her dark robe has less luminance contrast than her red gown or the Christ Child's lighter robes.


 

In the Cimabue painting, he overlaid both robes with gold highlighting (chrysography). The gold conveys grandeur and otherworldliness, but it also is a mechanism for indicating the folds of the fabric, which are not well delineated by the small luminance contrast the artist gave the darker color.

The solution to this problem, was the invention of chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro, in art, is the distribution and contrast of light and shade in a painting  or drawing, whether in monochrome or in color. The term is derived from the Italian chiaro ("light") and oscuro ("dark") and generally refers to a technique that contrasts bright illumination with areas of dense shadow. The skillful use of light and shade (sometimes called values) for dramatic effect is a particular feature in the works of such 16th-century Renaissance masters as Leonardo da Vinci  and Raphael and such 17th-century baroque masters as Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Georges de La Tour. Chiaroscuro is seldom found in pre-Renaissance or in non-Western art. 

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