Sunday, 27 May 2012

Holly & Clover: Earlom & Lorrain


What is a simple way of making a river look shallow or deep?



Before I begin to propose a solution to portraying the relative depth of water—or the depth to any spatial void for that matter—I need to address an important issue concerning the prints examined in the following discussion. When an original drawing is copied onto a printing plate for reproduction, as is the case with Richard Earlom’s mezzotint of Claude Lorrain’s drawing [plate] No. 5 (shown below), invariably some of the subtleties of the original drawing are lost in the translation from one medium into another. While this is probably unavoidable there is also the chance that the reproductive printmaker may make changes to “improve” the original image with slight adjustments. I mention these possibilities as the approach to portraying depth that I now wish to propose could be interpreted as a critique of Lorrain’s drawing when in fact the image I am examining is really the outcome of Earlom’s interpretation of Lorrain’s drawing.



Richard Earlom (1743–1822) after
Claude Gellée known better as Claude Lorrain (1600–1682)
[Plate] No. 5. From the Original Drawing in the Collection of R.P. Knight Esq., c. 1775 from Liber Veritas published by John Boydell, 1807
Mezzotint on wove paper,
23.2 x 31.5 (plate); 30 x 42.8 cm (sheet)
Condition: faint spotting on verso and a 0.5cm tear on left margin well away from the image otherwise in excellent condition with no blemishes.
I am selling this print for $95 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any queries or click the “Buy Now” button below.


One way to represent depth of water is to employ a very simple illusion involving the shape of the body of water. When representing shallow water, artists use outward bulging curves like those of a clover leaf to depict the water’s edge (see clover shape below). When representing deep water, they use inward arcing curves like those of a holly leaf to depict the water’s edge (see holly shape below). This focus on the shape of the body of water involves what perception theorists describe as a “figure and ground” illusion. For theorists, the water is perceived as the “figure” when it is perceived to be on top of the surrounding rocks or earth by virtue of convex curves and as “ground” when it is perceived to be below the surrounding rocks or earth by virtue of concave curves.


(left) clover shape (right) holly shape

To illustrate this phenomenon I have made a schematic drawing of a waterfall with a pool of water at its base (see below). Compare how the perception of the water’s depth changes from shallow water when the pool is constructed with convex curves like those of a clover leaf as opposed to deep water when the pool is constructed with concave curves like those of a holly leaf.



(left) shallow water with clover shape (right) deep water with holly shape

In Earlom’s [plate] No. 5 this perceptual play of representing the water is “figure” (i.e. shallow) and “ground” (i.e. deep) is interesting to examine. If we look at the silhouette edge of the rock closest to the centre of the pool (see detail below), for instance, the water is scalloping its outline leaving the rock as a holly shape. From my viewpoint this is an awkward arrangement as, especially at the more distant aspects of this rock the water appears to be on top of the rock. Going further when the upper edge of the rock is isolated from its context the water could well be interpreted as overlapping the rock like the ocean tide coming over a shoreline (see detail further below).


Detail of No. 5.

Detail of No. 5.

Artists can overcome such a problem by “building” concave curves out of either straight lines or small convex sections. Interesting the same idea of only using straight lines or convex curves is also applicable to drawing people as our bodies are fundamentally bone, tendon and muscle with very few concave areas. To illustrate the difference of how the outline of the rock would appear if the curves were replaced with straight and convex lines see the digital alterations below.

(above) detail of No. 5 with concavities
(below) digitally altered detail of No. 5 without concavities

A good example of the use of a holly-shape configuration of rocks around water can be seen in another mezzotint by Earlom reproducing a different drawing by Lorrain, No. 43 (shown below). Here swirling water is depicted with very few concavities but this print has one other interesting feature with regard to water: it portrays a narrow body of water by the darkening the tone of the water into the more distant reaches of the stream. This is a fascinating visual device as large bodies of water, such as lakes and broad rivers, are portrayed as becoming lighter into the distance whereas the reverse is true for narrow bodies of water like streams and creeks. In the digitally modified images further below the tonal arrangement on the water has been reversed to illustrate this phenomenon.


Richard Earlom (1743–1822) after
Claude Gellée known better as Claude Lorrain (1600–1682)
[Plate] No. 43. From the Original Drawing in the Collection of R.P. Knight Esq., c. 1775
from Liber Veritas published by John Boydell, 1807
Mezzotint on wove paper,
20.7 x 26.3 (plate); 27.2 x 34 cm (sheet)
Condition: Excellent condition with no blemishes. Cut unevenly with 0.5 cm margin on left, 7.3 cm margin on right, 2.5 cm margin on top and 4 cm margin at bottom.
I am selling this print for $85 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any queries or click the “Buy Now” button below.

(right) [Plate] No. 43.
(left) digitally altered image showing reversal of tonal gradations on river