chiaroscuro woodcut

14 October 2010 § Leave a comment

Ludolph Büsinck - Aeneas rettet seinen Vater Anchises

(also: clair-obscur woodcut, camaïeu (French), clair-obscuurhoutsnede (Dutch))

Between 1508 and 1510 the chiaroscuro technique suddenly appears on different locations. The origin of the chiaroscuro technique is uncertain. One possibility is that the technique originated from illustrators who coloured woodcut printings by hand. By printing in colour they would save a lot of labour and time and in this way an even colouring would be garanteed. Nevertheless chiaroscuro doesn’t provide vivid colour prints, so it is also possible that this technique didn’t have its origin in the desire for bright illustrations, but was at first a way to produce woodcuts with shade effects in grey. Maybe chiaroscuro only intended to accentuate the aesthetic value of the woodcut technique and wasn’t produced to make a contribution to the realistic quality of the printed image itself.

Chiaroscuro is a form of coloured woodcut which exists of two or more woodcuts which are precisely printed over eachother and produce one illustration in different but allied colours or different tones of one colour. In the key-block the basic outlines of the image are cut, which happens in the same way as with normal woodcut. The woodcutter can choose whether he wants to have heavy main lines or light ones and has to accomplish this by leaving heavy or light lines uncut. He can also make his image without outlines at all. Then no key-block is used and the illustration is build up from only tone-blocks. For beside this key-block mostly two or three tone-blocks are cut, which give the image the coloured effects. Sometimes the colour of the paper is another dimension given to an illustration in chiaroscuro.

First the tone-blocks are printed, at last the key-block. The difficulty of chiaroscuro woodcut is that the different blocks have to be placed on exactly the same place of the paper to get the aimed effect. Therefore pins or dowels are used, which hold the edges of the blocks on the same place. Also designing a chiaroscuro asks a high level of craftmanship, because the woodcutter has to have the final illustration in his mind while cutting the tone-blocks as striking colour effects for the key-block. Already in mind the final illustration has to be build up from different woodcuts. Only a few good artists produced chiaroscuro woodcuts during a short period of time; maybe because of the difficulty of the technique, its popularity increased soon after its highlights in the 16th century.

The chiaroscuro especially was developped during the 16th century in Germany (Lucas Cranach, Hans Burgkmair, Hans Baldung and Johann Wechtlin) and Italy (Ugo da Capri), though both in a different way. In Germany all lines of the illustration were printed from the key-block as if the key-block could be used on itself. Tone-blocks only supplemented the illustration. Italian artists rather emphasized the use of the tone-blocks, so that all line-blocks supplemented eachother. In the Netherlands Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) first used the technique, from whom the earliest example of chiaroscuro is a combination of a copper plate impression with two woodcuts. Metal plates in combination with chiaroscuro are most often used as key-blocks. In the 18th century in addition combinations of chiaroscuro with mezzotint or etching were made. [John Tholen]



Primary literature

Vasari, G. Le vite de’ piú eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri, Firenze 1550


Secondary literature

Hind, A. An introduction to a history of woodcut, New York 1963

Lehmann-Haupt, H. An introduction to the woodcut of the seventeenth century, New York 1977

Reichel, A. Die Clair-obscur-Schnitte des XVI, XVII und XVIII Jahrhunderts, Zürich/Leipzig/Wien 1926

Strauss, W. Chiaroscuro, the clair-obscur woodcuts by the German and Netherlandish masters of the XVIth and XVIIth centuries, New York 1973



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