Sunday, 26 August 2012

Analogue & Digital Lighting: Boisseau, Agar, Wild & Foster

How does an audience that is fully immersed in the digital age look at images?

Interestingly, the direction we read (e.g. Westerners read from the left side of a line of text to the right side) has a big impact upon the way we look at images and, in turn, how artists arrange the lighting on their portrayed subject. For instance, artists wishing to cater for a left-to-right reading direction of a Western audience portray their subjects with a top-left lighting angle as the Western eye is attuned to perceive a subject’s form when it is lit from this direction. In Jean-Jacques de Boissieu’s (1736 –1810) Saint Jerome shown below, for example, Western eyes see the body of the saint as far more three-dimensional when he is lit from the left than if his body were lit from the right as shown further below when the print is “flipped” horizontally. For academic artists the arrangement of light is more exacting: a top-front-left angle convention as can be seen in John Samuel Agar’s (1773–1858) stipple engraving of antique heads (also shown below). 

Jean-Jacques de Boisseau (1736–1810)
St Jerome, 1797
Etching, drypoint, engraving and roulette, chine colle.
49 x 35 (plate); 42.7 x 31 cm (image); 63 x 45.7 cm (sheet)
Perez: 104
Condition: Rich impression with toning (oxidation) in the margins. There are also handling marks and many tears in the margins, some of which are restored.
I am selling this print for $180 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. (Note: this is a large print and will be shipped in a tube.) 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.

Jean-Jacques de Boisseau, (detail) St Jerome, 1797
(left) Boisseau, St. Jerome, 1797
(right) horizontally flipped image of St. Jerome
(click the image to enlarge)
John Samuel Agar (1773–1858)
Plate VII, 1809
Stipple engraving in sepia on laid paper
27.8 x 22.5 cm (plate); 55.7 x 38 cm (sheet)
Published by T Payne and J White (presumably as part of the folio, Specimens of Ancient Sculpture… published by T Bensley)
Condition: crisp impression with thee light surface marks (dirt?) towards the middle-left side within the plate mark. There is a repaired 7 cm margin tear that is 1.5 cm away from the plate mark. The paper is clean and in good condition.
John Samuel Agar, (detail) Plate V1I, 1809 
John Samuel Agar (1773–1858)
Plate XLII, 1809
Stipple engraving in sepia on laid paper
27.6 x 22.5 cm (plate); 55 x 38 cm (sheet)
Published by T Payne and J White (presumably as part of the folio, Specimens of Ancient Sculpture… published by T Bensley) 
Condition: crisp impression minor wrinkling. The paper is clean with minor handling marks and 1 cm edge cracks on the lower and right edges.
I am selling this print (Plate XLII) and the other Agar stipple engraving further above (Plate VII) for a total cost of $120 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. (Note: these are large prints and will be shipped in a tube.) 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.

John Samuel Agar, (detail) Plate XLII, 1809 

This lighting arrangement has become so much a part of the Occidental way of looking at images that even digital buttons in computer programs (i.e. “pop-up” display keys shown on the monitor rather than physical buttons we can touch) have a top-front-left lighting arrangement enabling the viewer to see if a displayed button is raised or lowered. By contrast, artists wishing to cater for a right-to-left reading direction of an Arabic or Jewish audience will light their portrayed subject in the reverse direction so that light is cast on a subject from the top-front-right. The importance of this seemingly simple principle became apparent to me after contemplating advertisements in an Israeli newspaper and intuitively knowing that the compositions were aesthetically awkward (i.e. “wrong”) for my Western eyes.

My awakening to the importance of the angle of lighting in these newspaper advertisements impacted also on my understanding of images in general that I knew deep down were unsettling. One of these is another of de Boisseau’s rich and moody prints, The Fathers of the Desert (shown below). I had originally acquired this print as I had (and still have) a fascination with hermits and this particular image is truly haunting. For me, a lot of its attraction rests with the standing figure’s facial expression of transcendent rapture (see the same facial expression in Zurbaran’s painting, St Francis, upon which this figure is modelled). There is also the hint of the unknown conjured by the landscape setting outside the dark void of the open cave. But to my eyes the really riveting attraction is the dramatic lighting (termed chiaroscuro) that is cast on the figure like a spotlight from the right. I suspect that if the lighting had been from the left, the figures and landscape features may have appeared more three-dimensional as is the case with St Jerome, but the peculiarly otherworldly mood of the image would not have been the same.

Jean-Jacques de Boisseau (1736–1810)
The Fathers of the Desert, 1797
Etching, chine colle.
49 x 35 cm (sheet)
Perez: 103
Condition: cut within the plate marks but with a border around the chine colle of the image. There are handling marks and tears in the support sheet otherwise good condition.
I am selling this print for $180 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. (Note: this is a large print and will be shipped in a tube.) 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.

Jean-Jacques de Boisseau, (detail) The Fathers of the Desert, 1797

Of perhaps surprising importance to the following discussion is how artists arranged the lighting for early Oriental eyes where text is read vertically. The convention for Eastern artists was not to impose a sideways lighting on their subject at all but rather to portray spatial depth in terms of disposing each featured subject in its own spatial zone from foreground to distance. Often these zones are differentiated from each other with white space (or to use the term I have applied to Western art, noetic space; see post Jacque: Sheep and Shadows) and the suggestion of mist separating each zone but, or course, each subject demands its own requirements for spatial placement.

How this Oriental approach of vertical reading has relevance to the digital age is again by being linked to reading habits. In the past, the direction of reading also applied to how books and other collections of text were negotiated in terms of turning the pages. First, the reader would view the top page (in the West this is signified by the bound edge of the book being on the left whereas in the East it is on the right) and then would turn the page over following the culture’s reading direction to see the next page or, alternatively, move the eye to the adjacent page. In short, there is a convention of where the next page is to be found. In the digital world things are beginning to change. For screen-based text the “top” of the page is to be found with the document scrolled upward and the pages that follow are to be found by scrolling the document downward. At first such an arrangement is sensible and unproblematic. But there is a subtle shift in the way the digital audience is now beginning to view images and it is different to the ways of the past.

This subtle shift in reading only occurred to me after hearing about the conundrum encountered by advertisers concerned with making money from the social networking site, Facebook. The concern is that the viewers tend to not look at information placed on the sides of the screen as they have become conditioned to see this area as being for advertisements (as is the case with many blog sites). To express this differently, unlike readers holding a book or newspaper where the viewing field is the whole page, for viewers looking at Internet pages (as opposed to digitalised pages on eReaders like Kindle) the viewing field has arguably become more localised to the centre of the screen. In essence, the culture of digital reading is morphing our gaze to a vertical stream of reading from zenith to nadir. The interesting question that this poses is whether this focus impacts on the way digital artists compose their images and there is evidence that this may be the case.

I posed this question to a former Honours student, Gareth Wild, for insights into his artistic practice and the following response highlights a change in attitude to the conventions of composition for at least one of the rising digital stars. Regarding Gareth’s first digital image, Zoombified Pirate (shown below), Gareth advises me that the image is top lit but he does not believe that the lighting is “an integral component to the overall impact of the image.” Although Gareth’s view of his image may be interpreted as negating the importance of the vertical lighting arrangement his following comment is very revealing: “The composition is vertically linear—not unlike the design of a webpage, and the ominous background smog creates a subtle vignette effect—again reinforcing the centralised composition reflected in our reading of a webpage. In Gareth’s digitally created image, Large Crustacean (shown further below) his insight is that this print is “less vertically linear than the former image, but again is top/back lit.” Going further, he points out that the “important information is central and a subtle vignette effect is also apparent.”

Gareth Wild, Zoombified Pirate, 2011, digital image
Gareth Wild, Large Crustacean, 2011, digital image
From a personal standpoint there seem to be three ways that digital artists have morphed conventional principles of image making. The first is that the notion of a light source illuminating the portrayed subject from the top-front-left is changing to a system of immersive lighting where the effects of light are not so much “on” the surface of the subject but is within the portrayed subject. An example of this phenomenon is a painting by one of my first-year students, Sue Foster, who began her painting of a still life (shown below) as a watercolour and then “worked” on it digitally to refine the principles addressed in the class. Beyond the scattering of light, note also how Sue’s compositional arrangement echoes Gareth’s reflections on his approach discussed above.

Sue Foster, Watercolour—Fruit, 2012 
digitally manipulated watercolour
The second way is to do with colour. In analogue paintings (i.e. paintings made using traditional materials) artists have the resources to make subtle adjustments to colour by applying a layering of glazes to produce an amalgam of tone, chroma, opacity, sheen and surface facture that—arguably—cannot be duplicated with screen colours (RGB) or with the colours of the print industry (Pentone spot colours and CMYK). This in itself is not a problem as a very close approximation of colour can be achieved but this screen colour approximation may lead to a fresh way of seeing imagery. By this I mean that there is a conceptual leap from Arthur C Danto’s notion of an audience’s engagement with the imagery of Giotto, Leonardo and Raphael “like a disembodied eye” (1990, p. 186) to the potential of viewer’s interactive and immersive presence in digital imagery.

The third way is best described as the male vision of the hunter and gatherer where focus is literally targeted on the central area of the image. This pattern of where a viewer’s gaze rests returns us to the conundrum faced by the Facebook advertisers: digital viewers are not looking at the periphery of their field of view.

Danto, Arthur C 1990, Encounters and Reflections. Toronto, Harper & Collins

Sunday, 19 August 2012

3 Approaches to Creativity: Cousen, Cole, Park & Brown

What are some approaches that artists use to inspire themselves?

For a number of years I’ve been pondering approaches to creativity and recently one of my Honours students even focused her study on this topic because it is so interesting. This fascination with the creative impulse stretches way back through history. Artists like Alexander Cozens (1717–86), for example, created ink blots and used their patterns like a Rorschach test to stimulate his creativity in order to see potential landscape subject material in how the blots were configured. In fact Cozens was so delighted with this approach to creativity that he even documented the process in his book: A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (for an explanation of his practice see

After much navel-gazing and chatting with students and colleagues I wish to propose that there are three fundamental approaches for creative invention: verisimilitude (i.e. using an observed subject as a platform for creative replication of it in an artistic medium), interpolation (i.e. portraying a subject in a way that adds fresh meanings to the subject’s original meaning) and fountainhead (i.e. an approach like Cozens developed where a subject of fixation becomes the point of departure—“ground zero”—for a creative leap to a subject that may be far removed from the original). The following discussion explores these three approaches by examining how different artists (Charles Cousen [c. 1813–89], Timothy Cole [1852–1931], John Park [1851–1919] and I) have used Constable’s painting, The Cornfield (1826), as a subject for their personal artworks.

Let me begin with the verisimilitude approach. Looking back to the prints by reproductive printmakers of the nineteenth and earlier centuries, these artists’ interest in the process of copying paintings, sculpture and drawings often went beyond a singular desire to create close pictorial resemblance. For instance, Franklin Robinson (2005) perceives in the seventeenth-century Dutch printmakers’ reproductive prints a desire “to possess the object itself, in a heightened, intenser form” (p. 5). Whether the motivation is to psychologically “possess” the subject, to see and understand it better by close scrutiny, or simply to fulfil a contract, there is a very real and practical necessity for all artists engaged in making reproductive prints to tap into their creativity to translate the addressed subject’s form, colour and surface texture into a meaningful image.

In Charles Cousen’s engraved replication of The Cornfield (shown below), for example, he has converted the colour-tones of Constable’s oil painting into a grey scale of tones through a complex layering of lines. A broad comparison of Cousen’s engraved replication of the painting’s colour-tones (see further below) reveals his keen eye—mindful that Cousen was not able to click a button in a digital program to make the conversion as we can today. Interestingly, Cousen’s tonal interpretation of Constable’s painting is much more creative on close examination. For example, Cousen has manipulated (i.e. “toyed with”) the tonal contrasts within the trees to help a viewer’s reading of the trees as three-dimensional forms. Of particular interest to my eye is his reconfiguration of the tones within the clouds to create a strong upward rhythm that may be seen to give the cloud mass a forward projecting and (again) greater three-dimensional form.  

Charles Cousen (c.1813–89)
The Cornfields after John Constable, c.1870
Steel engraving, 24.5 x 21 cm
(left) Charles Cousen, The Cornfields after John Constable, c.1870
(right) digitally modified gray-scale image of John Constable’s original painting
(for image of Constable’s painting before modification see Wikimedia Commons: [viewed 18.8.2012])
Beyond Cousen’s conversion of the painting’s colour-tones to greys, he also shows creative invention in his mimetic representation of the oil painting’s textures. Consider, for instance, his juxtaposition of mechanically engraved marks portraying the sky (see detail below), designed to suggest a comparatively smooth application of paint, with the scribble-like marks portraying the foliage, designed to suggest freely laid and thick paint. Of course, there is always the question of the degree of mimetic translation that an artist wishes to engage in.

(upper) detail of Charles Cousen’s The Cornfields after John Constable, c.1870
(lower) arrow indicating the reference area in John Constable’s original painting
(for image of Constable’s painting see Wikimedia Commons: [viewed 18.8.2012])
For example, compare Cousen’s approach with Timothy Cole’s much more inventive approach to creating a faithful copy of Constable’s The Cornfields shown below in his wood engraved version. In Cole’s print the original painting is now converted into a pattern of negative (white) marks resulting from the relief (i.e. raised) printing process. These negative marks with their complex arrangement and variations of shape reveal an even more codified pattern than exhibited in Cousen’s print. In the detail shown further below, see how Cole’s creative invention in the reproduction of Constable’s sky is now a carefully calculated optical pattern of closely aligned curving stokes that at one moment appear to be negative lines and at the next moment are seen as positive (black) lines. Going further, Cole has portrayed the expansive plane of the sky region as optically energised by the sinuous flow of these lines. By contrast to this flow, also note how he has synthesised the texture of the foliage into wedge-shaped dots that to my eyes present a convincing approximation of the facture (i.e. the handmade physicality) of Constable’s brushwork.

Timothy Cole (1852–1931)
The Cornfields after John Constable, 1899
Wood engraving, 15.5 x 13.4 cm
(upper) detail of Timothy Cole’s The Cornfields after John Constable, 1899
(lower) arrow indicating the reference area in John Constable’s original painting
(for image of Constable’s painting see Wikimedia Commons: [viewed 18.8.2012])

Mindful that most artists are not prone—perhaps even unable—to disengage their personal interests and sensitivities when portraying a subject objectively, the approach of verisimilitude in achieving what the OED defines as “the appearance of being true or real” needs a caveat to allow for an artist’s personal perception of what constitutes truthful representation. From the standpoint of allowing such a caveat, this means that an artist is liberated from a strict and soulless copying of a subject’s superficial pictorial reality and can portray an interpretation of truth based on the dimensions of the artist’s perception of the subject. 

Regarding the interpolation approach where an artist adds fresh meanings to the subject’s original meaning, this is different to the last approach in that here the artist intentionally changes the original subject to project a personal perception. For example, in John Park’s print of The Cornfields (shown below) the image may be instantly recognisable as matching that of Constable’s painting but Park has changed the essential mood (i.e. the projected emotional tenor) of the painting with swirling line work in the sky (see detail further below) and a darkening of the painting’s tonal key. As a result, this print projects turmoil and drama. It is not the same view of landscape as a calm place where a shepherd boy can calmly drink that Constable presents. In short, Park has creatively reinvented Constable’s painting as his own artwork.

John Park (1851–1919)
The Cornfields after John Constable, 1885
Etching on wove paper
25.6 x 22.6 cm (plate); 42.5 x 29.9 cm (sheet)
view of whole sheet
Condition: very rich impression with a faint stain 5 cm from plate mark in lower margin and a small clipped lower-right corner otherwise in pristine condition.
I am selling this print by John Park along with the two above prints by Charles Cousen and Timothy Cole after Constable’s The Cornfield for a total combined cost of  $110 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. 

John Park, (detail) The Cornfields after John Constable, 1885

Regarding the final approach to creativity—the fountainhead approach—I have decided to discuss my adaptation of Constable’s painting as a way of illustrating how an original image can serve as a pictorial launch pad for one’s own artistic practice.

For me, there are few images that are more closely identified with the English landscape than Constable’s The Cornfield. For some historically-minded viewers it epitomises an idealised view of English rural life a few centuries ago. Moreover, it for foretells the developing interest in the effects of light by the tiny flecks of white that Constable scattered through the areas of foliage to capture the sparkle of light glinting on leaves—commonly referred to as “Constable’s snow.” My interest, however, lies with the “U”-shaped composition of the painting and it is this component of his painting that became my point of departure for my very free adaptation of The Cornfield (shown below). Specifically, my fascination lies with Constable’s curious blend of Western conventions of composition that invite a left-to-right reading and the conundrum posed on such a reading by the direction of light coming from the right and the arrangement of trees that invite a right-to-left reading.

James Brown
Referencing Constable, 2011
Oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm
(This painting has been sold)

In Referencing Constable I explored what would happen if the composition were mirrored (i.e. pictorially reversed) so that the direction of light and the arrangement of key features encouraged a left-to-right reading that is more in keeping with the Occidental way of reading.

Beyond the reconfiguring of Constable’s composition this is not an attempt to revive Constable’s view of the English landscape. My painting revises—probably closer to obliterates—an Englishman’s view of an English landscape and offers instead a North Queenslander’s view of the region I am most familiar: the hot dry tropical landscape of Australia.
Robinson, Franklin 2005, The Illustrated Bartsch 5: Netherlandish Artists, Araris Books, New York

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Haptic & Visual: Rodin & Julien

What are the key approaches to drawing?

Without too many apologies for speaking broadly, I wish to propose that there are only two fundamental approaches to drawing: the haptic and the visual. The haptic approach involves an artist drawing the chosen subject as if “feeling” its contours and spatial volume in a sensory way. For instance, if the subject were a chair, the artist would seemingly—perhaps literally—stroke the drawing support with the pen or pencil as if stroking the chair’s contours until an image of the chair became apparent. This attitude of discovering form by sensory exploration is expressed well by Michelangelo’s often quoted assertion:” I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” (arguably from a letter from Michelangelo to Benedetto Varchi). By contrast, the visual approach is a much more analytical and calculated process of representing a subject using pictorial conventions, sight-size measuring and applying the most appropriate marks to mimic the subject’s pictorial attributes. For instance, in using this approach the artist would draw the chair by using the rules of perspective and employ marks to replicate the textures and patterns of light and shade on the chair.  To illustrate the difference of these two approaches and the advantages of each, the following discussion will focus on the way that Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) employs the haptic approach in portraiture by comparison to the visual approach of Bernard-Romain Julien (1802–71).

Like most sculptors engaged with working in a three-dimensional medium such as clay, plaster and bronze, Rodin’s practice as a draughtsman is to use each line as if it were floating in space. Moreover, the placement of each line in this illusion of space is so clear its position with regard to the other lines in a drawing can be determined with a fair degree of certainty. In his portrait of Victor Hugo (shown below) for example the lines portraying the great writer’s beard (see the detail further below) are arranged so that the hairs closest to us are minimally longer and have more graphic energy (i.e. expressive “life”) than the lines describing the further away aspects of his beard. From a personal standpoint, these lines are more than descriptive marks representing the beard. They embody the material substance of the beard as a three-dimensional mass leading back to his face in a flurry of rhythms like water making its way through rapids. 

Auguste Rodin (1840–1917)
Victor Hugo, de Trois Quarts (Victor Hugo, Three-Quarters View), 1885
Drypoint on creme wove paper
state vi (of viii)
22.2 x 14.9 cm (plate); 29.8 x 21.8 cm (sheet)
Thorson: VIII
Condition: pristine condition.
I am selling this print for the total amount of $970 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.

View of whole sheet
Rodin, (detail) Victor Hugo, Three-Quarters View, 1885

Rodin’s treatment of the silhouette outline of Hugo’s forehead reveals a key element of the haptic approach: a subject’s form is constructed out of the contours of the subject’s features rather than through observed effects of light and shade on the features. For example, the bump on Hugo’s noble brow (see detail below) is not delineated as a simple convexity in an unbroken silhouette outline. Instead the bump is portrayed as a conceptually “felt” excrescency and, as a consequence, the line work contouring the bump is then fitted into the matrix of other “felt” contours that ultimately shape the silhouette outline of Hugo’s head. In short, the outline is constructed from the head’s internal features rather than an observed line of demarcation between the subject and the immediate background.

Rodin, (detail) Victor Hugo, Three-Quarters View, 1885

One outcome of working with the haptic approach is that a drawing of a subject executed this way must ultimately be a personal and subjective portrayal. Of course, this is not usually a problem as part of the mantra of most artists is to showcase a personal vision. When a personal perception is not required, as for example in presenting an objective viewpoint for technical illustration, the visual approach of presenting a subject from the standpoint of what can be observed becomes important. The teaching of drawing and illustration is built around this approach as it gives opportunity for all the drawing techniques and principles gathered through the centuries to be channelled into a best practice model for portraying a subject. One of the instrumental artists engaged in this academic pursuit during the nineteenth century is Bernard-Romain Julien.

Julien’s approach to drawing is easily seen in his exercise templates for students to copy. In the selection of lithographs shown below the fine art academy student is invited to use the initial outline of the figure on the left of each plate and to follow the tonal distribution of the figure fully rendered in tone on the right. During the nineteenth century, instructional plates like these were widely available and they helped to train the student’s eye to see clearly and to instil care in the modelling of a subject’s form using very controlled shading techniques.

 Bernard-Romain Julien (1802–71)
Cours Elementaire, Plate Number 42
Lithograph on wove paper
27.5 x 36 cm
Cours Elementaire, Plate Number 44
Lithograph on wove paper
27.5 x 35.5 cm
Cours Elementaire, Plate Number 74
Lithograph on wove paper
27 x 36 cm
Cours Elementaire, Plate Number 79
Lithograph on wove paper
27.5 x 35.5 cm
Condition: minor handling marks and age toning to edges.

These prints have been sold

In the two prints below Julien’s deep admiration of a classical past is very evident. Not only is the choice of a subject designed to appeal to a taste at that time for notions of beauty aligned to the antique but the style of rendering is also designed to impart cool objectivity despite the use of dramatic lighting and the vignette format.

Bernard-Romain Julien (1802–71)
Cours Elementaire, Plate Number 138
Lithograph on wove paper
36 x 27.5 cm
Cours Elementaire, Plate Number 56
Lithograph on wove paper
35.9 x 27.4 cm
Condition: minor handling marks and age toning to edges.
I am selling the above two lithographs (#138, 56) for the total amount of $130 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.

These prints have been sold

Julien’s infinite care in rendering the transitions of tone on a subject also extends to how he models the contours of each form with line. In Etude d’apres E. Deveria (shown below), for instance, the cross-hatching of lines is so consciously controlled that the precision of alignment within each set of lines makes the form of the subject a clear representation of concrete reality.

Bernard-Romain Julien (1802–71)
Etude d’apres E. Deveria, Cours Elementaire, Plate Number 104
Lithograph on wove paper
37 x 27.4 cm
Condition: minor handling marks and age toning to edges.
I am selling the above lithograph (#104) for the total amount of $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 are interested or click the “Buy Now” button below.

This print has been sold

On close comparison with the line work of Rodin, however, there is a difference in the handling of contours. In Julien’s print the line work can be described as an approximation of a broad flow of the subject’s contours but this flow is one based on observation rather than sensory exploration. Herein is the essential difference in the two approaches.

Julien, (detail) Etude d’apres E. Deveria
Julien, (detail) Etude d’apres E. Deveria

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Passion in a Line: Rembrandt, Courtry & Chauvel

How can an artist show passion in a stroke?

Arguably the first printmaker who sought to contrive the appearance of natural energy, or what I wish to describe as passion, in his strokes is Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1431–1498) as seen in his remarkably large engraving, Battle of the Nudes, c. 1470 (see a wonderful article on this print published by the Cleveland Museum of Art at Why I choose the word “contrived” in terms of exhibiting passion is because Pollaiuolo (and his equally famous peer, Andrea Mantegna) engraved zigzag patterns of lines created out of individually laid strokes replicating the appearance of fluid return-strokes (i.e. a strong downward mark followed by the trace of a mark leading back to the beginning of the next strong downward mark) that artists achieve when working quickly with a pen (see illustration of the return-stroke below). What Pollaiuolo was consciously emulating is the “look” of speed and confidence. In short, he had found a way to capture one of the hallmarks of passion even though the process necessary to achieve the effect in engraving is far from a naturally spontaneous hand gesture with the burin.

Pollaiuolo’s return-stroke digitally modified from a detail 
Interestingly, the type of passion that Paollaiuolo exhibits in his carefully crafted return-strokes was taken a step further by Francesco Rosselli (c. 1445–before 1513) whose line work retains the “hooks” of the return line (i.e. the twist at the start and conclusion of each return-stroke as shown in the illustration below) without showing a fully inscribed zigzag of lines (see Landau, David and Parshall, Peter 1994, The Renaissance Print 1470–1550, Yale University Press, New Haven, p. 73.)

Rosselli’s hook-stroke digitally modified from Pollaiuolo’s return-stroke
Although the return-stroke epitomises natural fluidity of how an artist’s hand lays down a zigzag network of lines when shading—often described as “blocking-in” tones—there is more to exhibiting passion then leaving a trail of “z” marks like Zorro. Natural phrasing of the line also plays a role. Regarding phrasing, here the passion is revealed by the artist’s inherent propensity to vary the pressure when making each stroke resulting in changes of tone, opacity and thickness to the line along its length. Equally critical to exhibiting passion in natural phrasing of a line is the artist’s personal signature-style where each stroke is given a slight curvature.

Martin Schongauer (c.1448–91) is acclaimed to be the first printmaker to use phrased strokes, in terms of curved cross-hatched lines (see illustration below digitally extracted from his engraving, Christ as Man of Sorrows; half-length behind a balustrade between the Virgin on the left St John on the right, and angels above, 1469–82). Not only do variations in the length and thickness of his lines help to describe his subjects’ surface contours but the subtle shaping of each mark also hints at the spirit of the artist who laid each stroke.

digitally modified detail from the torso of Schongauer’s Christ as Man of Sorrows showing curved cross-hatching 
Rembrandt brought together the passion that Paollaiuolo sought with the return-stroke and the subtle phrasing of Schongauer’s curved strokes in his signature style. He uses this amalgam of the two strokes in an approach that may be described as haptic, in the sense that his strokes are applied in a sensory way (as opposed to a strictly visual way) to “feel” his portrayed subject into a visual form. In The Return of the Prodigal Son (shown below), for example, Rembrandt’s free use of the return-stroke (see detail further below) not only suggests the texture, tone and decoration on the cloak of the figure stepping out of the doorway but the marks also animate the curvature of his gown.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69)
The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1636
Signed and dated “Rembrandt f. 1626”
Only state
15.3 x 13.5 cm (plate); 28.3 x 20 cm (sheet)
Bartsch 91

This print has been sold

view of full sheet
Rembrandt, (detail) The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1636
With regard to Schongauer’s curved cross-hatching, note in the detail of the father’s gown shown below how Rembrandt applies a set of lines to shape the downward flow of the material along the father’s back and legs. Moreover, note how Rembrandt explores the opposing directional flow of the gown as it wraps around the father’s legs with another set of lines at almost right angles

Rembrandt, (detail) The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1636
One way to appreciate the subtle life in Rembrandt’s lines is to compare his line work with that of Charles Courtry’s (1846–97) in his engraved translation of Thomas de Keyser’s La Femme Du Bourgmestre (shown below). Both artists employ lines that curve according to the contours of the subject depicted (see detail of Courtry’s print further below) but the difference lies in the implied freshness of Rembrandt’s marks exhibited by their tiny hooked ends—Rosselli’s hook-stroke (compare the details of both artists’ lines shown further below).

Charles Courtry’s (1846–97)
after Thomas de Keyser’s painting, La Femme Du Bourgmestre
engraving with etching (and drypoint ?) on cream laid paper
32.9 x 26.5 cm (sheet)
Condition: strong impression without foxing or other blemishes with slight age toning. There are faint plate marks on the left and right sides but the print has either been cut at or within the plate mark on the top and bottom.  
I am selling this print for $35 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.

(left) detail of Courtry’s contour strokes without Rosselli’s hook
(right) detail of Rembrandt’s contour strokes with Rosselli’s hook
(click to enlarge)
There is one final component giving passion to a line and it is to do with how an artist thinks about the negative space contained by each stroke (i.e. the space of paper that a curved stroke partially encloses). For calligraphers this is an important consideration as by not enclosing a pocket of space in the formation of a letter shape the overall design of a word becomes too open and the eye may not easily recognise the word-shape. As an example of this principle one of the world’s great calligraphers, Carl Rohrs, kindly wrote the word “Bounce” to demonstrate “closed” space and “Horse” to demonstrate “open” space (see below).

Carl Rohrs
Bounce, illustrating the principle of “closed” space to letter shapes
Horse, illustrating the principle of “open” space to letter shapes
In creating images the same principle is equally important, as closed spaces give coherence to the portrayal of a subject. Going further, the act of framing space around a subject shows that an artist is thoroughly engaged with the experience of looking and understanding the subject’s form. One of the best artists to demonstrate this idea of ensuring that each pocket of space contained within a line is important is the somewhat historically overlooked artist, Theophile Chauvel (see Environs de Rouen and Tronc d’arbre below). His choice of subject matter may lean to a romanticism of a fading age but the way that Chauvel arcs each of his strokes is like a sculptor passionately modelling and finding his forms in space as if they were clay. 

Theophile-Narcisse Chauvel (1831–1909)
Environs de Rouen, 1873
Etching on cream laid paper
Published by Cadart
15.8 x 23.6 cm (plate); 24.1 x 33.9 cm (sheet)
Condition: pristine.
I am selling this print for $70 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.

Chauvel, (detail) Environs de Rouen, 1873
Theophile-Narcisse Chauvel (1831–1909)
After painting by Narcisse Diaz, Tronc d’arbre, 1890
Etching on cream laid paper
28.7 x 21.8 cm (plate); 42.2 x 29.3 (sheet)
Published by Cadart
15.8 x 23.6 cm (plate); 24.1 x 33.9 cm (sheet)
Condition: excellent.
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 are interested or click the “Buy Now” button.

Chauvel, (detail) Tronc d’arbre, 1890
Chauvel, (detail) Tronc d’arbre, 1890