Sunday, 23 December 2012

Aerial perspective: Umbach, Callot, Swanevelt & Cuisinier


How do artists use line to represent the effects of atmospheric haze?


In the post, Colour and spatial depth, I addressed some of the ways that artists portray the illusion of depth in images by cooling, greying and lightening the tone of colours. The present discussion builds upon this earlier interest by proposing how line alone (i.e. without colour) can portray pictorial depth and specifically how it can be used to capture the effect of atmospheric softening in images.

Before entering into a discussion about the principles for depicting aerial perspective—the technical term for describing the effect of atmospheric blurring—I wish to compare the difference in pictorial space between an image crafted with a single quality of line to represent depth and one constructed out of a careful arrangement of different types of lines (e.g. long, short, thick, thin, straight, curved, strong, fluid, crumbly, opaque and transparent).

An ideal example of an image built from a consistent thickness and tone of line is Jonas Umbach’s (1624–93) Landscape with Hunter and His Dogs (shown below). Umbach’s lines represent spatial depth by each feature of his landscape either overlaying the landscape details behind it or the details in front of the feature overlaying it in the same fashion (see detail of the print further below). This approach is effective in clarifying where each feature is positioned in space in terms of what could be crudely described as “this is in front of that” and with regard to linear perspective—the technical term for describing the gradual reduction in size of objects as they move away from us. What Umbach’s approach with using a fixed quality of line is not good at clarifying is how far each feature is from the next. To project this understanding of spatial dimension an artist needs to change the line attributes so that the landscape features farthest away are portrayed with lines that recreate the illusion of atmospheric fuzziness.


Jonas Umbach (1624–93)
Landscape with a Hunter and His Dogs, 1680
From the series of eight prints, Landscapes with Shepherds and Fishermen
Etching
9.9 x 14.9 cm
Haas 238
Condition: strong impression in good condition with fine margins.
I am selling this print for $188 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 are interested or click the Buy Now button below.

This print has been sold
Detail of Umbach’s Landscape with a Hunter and His Dogs
Detail of Umbach’s Landscape with a Hunter and His Dogs


One of the more inventive of the early printmakers exploring different line qualities to depict spatial depth is Jacques Callot (1592–1635) exemplified in his etching, View of the Pont Neuf, Paris (shown below). His development of the échoppe etching-needle enabled him to vary the swelling of lines to give three-dimensional form to his subjects, as can be seen in the varying thickness of his strokes portraying clouds in the upper right of the scene (see detail further below). This facility in itself may not render atmospheric effects specifically; nevertheless, it enables artists to strategically soften the contour modelling of a form’s silhouette extremities and thus it provides a useful capacity for adjusting the degree of atmospheric blurring at the subject’s edges. 


Jacques Callot (1592–1635)
View of the Pont Neuf, Paris, c.1631/2
(this impression, taken from the original plate, was published by Philip Gilbert Hamerton for Etching & Etchers, first edition, 1868)
Etching on laid paper with gatefold creases as published
16.3 x 33.9 cm (plate); 25.2 x 39 cm (sheet)
Daniel 232
Condition: crisp and well inked impression with gatefold and full margins as published by Hamerton in 1868. The sheet has age toning towards the edges and gatefold. I am selling this print for $128 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 are interested or click the Buy Now button below.




Detail of swelling lines created by Callot’s échoppe etching-needle
in View of the Pont Neuf, Paris
Detail of Callot’s View of the Pont Neuf, Paris
Detail of Callot’s View of the Pont Neuf, Paris
Detail of Callot’s View of the Pont Neuf, Paris


Another of Callot’s techniques that addresses atmospheric haze in a profound way is his use of different line strengths: darker lines towards the foreground and lighter one towards the distance. To create these lines he varied the length of time that the line-work of each area of the etching plate is left in the mordant (acid) with the lines he wanted to be the darkest having been left in the mordant the longest. The advantage of this technique is clear by comparing in the two details below. To my eyes the graphic strength of the dark marks in the foreground connotes sharp focal resolution while the light marks depicting the far distance are graphically weak and suggest blurred vision.


Detail of View of the Pont Neuf, Paris showing use of varying line strengths to portray tonal and aerial perspective
Detail of View of the Pont Neuf, Paris

With regard to other artists’ approaches to representing spatial depth, the most common way is to conceive of space as having three critical and identifiable zones: foreground (i.e. the space occupied by the viewer where there is a comparatively sharp focus); middle-distance (i.e. a spatial zone that is midway between the viewer and the horizon or the far periphery of a scene where there the degree of focal resolution is also midway between sharp and blurry); and, far-distance (i.e. the spatial zone farthest away from the viewer where the focal resolution is poor). This approach makes the representation of space manageable. I mean this in the sense that the spatial break-up into three zones presents the artist with only three critical stages of change in the transition from sharp focus in the foreground to atmospheric blurriness in the far-distance. 

Of course, artists may choose to have a seamless transition from sharp focus to blurriness but tradition leans to artists employing just three zones and the attributes of these three zones are so entrenched that they can be codified.

To explain the attributes of each of the three zones I will use as an illustration the very beautiful etching by Herman van Swanevelt (1603–55) Large Waterfall (shown below).


Herman van Swanevelt (1603–55)
Large Waterfall [La Grande Cascade]
From the series Four Upright Landscapes
Inscribed: “Herman van Swanevelt Inventor fecit et excudit/ cum privilegio Regis”
Etching on laid paper
31.4 x 23.8 cm (plate); 31.5 x 24 cm (sheet)
Hollstein 102.ll; Bartsch ll.114 (318.115)
Condition: very good impression with minimal toning and handling marks. The sheet has age toning towards the edges and gatefolds. I am selling this print for $310 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 are interested or click the Buy Now button below.

This print has been sold

As shown in the digitally extracted foreground of Swanevelt’s etching and the detail sample below, the attributes of the foreground lines are: multi-directional (i.e. the lines may be angled in any direction matching the contours and textures of the featured subject); they are used in a mimetic fashion (i.e. the application of the lines match the intrinsic surface qualities of the subjects portrayed); and, the lines are laid in an emphatic way (i.e. the marks appear to be made confidently with crisp edges and with energy).

(upper image) digitally defined foreground area
(lower image) a sample of the line attributes in the foreground

The attributes of lines in the middle-distance, as shown below, are: lines aligned to a single angle related to the artist’s natural angle of mark making; they are blocked together in a averaging of the subject’s fundamental tones (i.e. the range of a subject’s tones are simplified, or what is technically described as “posterised”); and, as a result of the tonal emphasis, the lines are laid with a consistent pressure.   


(upper image) digitally defined middle-distance area

(lower image) a sample of the line attributes in the middle-distance

In the far-distance, as shown below, the key attributes are: lines leaning to a vertical or horizontal orientation lightly delineating the subject's silhouette edges; lines are laid in a schematic way representing a broad view of the subject; and, application of the lines is tentative suggesting the effect of atmospheric haze.  

(upper image) digitally defined far-distance area
(lower image) a sample of the line attributes in the far-distance

An interesting phenomenon concerning this visual code for representing aerial perspective is that the key attributes of each of the three zones incrementally invite a viewer “into” the distance by directional flow created by the pattern of lines in each zone. For example, in the diagram of the directional flow that I see in Swanevelt’s landscape, shown below, the angling of the lines gradually calms from the foreground zone of turbulent line work, through the middle-distance zone of broad planes of line to finally rest the eye into a view of a far-distant haze.

Visual code of line attributes for three zones

To conclude this discussion, I wish to draw attention to how the three-zone convention for showing a focal deterioration towards the distance is embraced in even quick sketches. For instance, note how Jules Edmond Cuisinier’s (1857–1917) rapidly executed ink sketch show below relies upon the three spatial zones to capture the effect of aerial perspective while simultaneously celebrating the essential spirit of the Barbizon School.

Jules Edmond Cuisinier (1857–1917)
Landscape
Pen and ink drawing on the back of a theatre programme for Théodore Barrière’s play, La Vie de Bohème.
7.8 x 10.5 cm (leaf)
Condition: yellow toning and handling marks otherwise in good condition. I am selling this drawing for $87 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 are interested or click the Buy Now button below.


This drawing has been sold

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