SAINTS AND ANGELS 3: Chiaroscuro in Hagia Sophia

CHIAROSCURO IN SUN AND SHADOW

Shadow Arch Detail: the Line Forms on the Left ©2011 Trici Venola

Pitch black, every single detail lost in inky shadows up here in the Imperial Gallery, Hagia Sophia. A dark, rainy day two days before Christmas, and the place is jammed. Every tourist here paid 25 lira to get in, and you can’t see anything that isn’t next to a window or a weak spotlight. All because the experts in charge haven’t turned on the lights in the chandeliers. I’m told they are experts, my buddies the guards say so.

Shadow Arch Gallery, Dark Day

Nevertheless I had to draw. Michael Constantinou is coming to Istanbul in a couple of weeks and he wants to pick up his art. Great news;  I hate shipping originals. But they have to be ready, I’ve paid the whopping tariff to get into Hagia Sophia, and here I sit, stymied in Stygian blackness. True, the piece is titled “Shadow Arch,” but this is ridiculous. The best I could do was to indicate in tiny light strokes where the big masses are, and bitch to the guards. Plein Air drawing, fooey!

Shadow Arch Gallery, Sunshine

Yesterday was much better. Dazzling sun, crystalline air. This is what it’s supposed to look like! Plein Air, the only way to draw! Crouched on a tiny folding stool about as big as an upended brick,  I draw with Dervish concentration, and nail most of the detail. Again, the place is mobbed. Many people jostle, loom and gesture, so I pause, since there’s nothing like having your work embellished by a big pen swipe from some oaf hitting your drawing arm. But this Japanese lady, she was with a big chattering group, and someone indicated that I was down in the corner there, drawing. She reared back, mouth and eyes wide, and swept everyone back with both arms as though I were a lit fuse or a pot of gold. My Art Ego swelled like a watered plant. Oh, she got it. And the Japanese have been responsible for most of the work in Hagia Sophia in the past decades: dome restoration, cleaning, discoveries of lost art. So I thanked the whole group, we had an impromptu art show with general effusion, and I felt like a pot of gold and a lit fuse. Here’s what they saw:

Shadow Arch WIP 2 ©2011 by Trici Venola.

What’s needed now is a whole lot of dark to offset the detail. Too much detail and everything flattens out. So I pay a lot of attention to chiaroscuro: that fine Italian term for the contrast of light and dark. Figures pulling themselves out of darkness into light. Think Caravaggio, DaVinci, Raphael.

Caravaggio’s Christ At the Column, 1593-1610

See how the figures look molded here? Chiaroscuro! The mosaic I’m drawing has the texture of shimmering brocade. Actually the pieces were set at angles to catch torchlight. Sun is a bonus. High up in the arch, a few silver mosaic medallions catch the light. Some are original; some were painted in by Ottoman restorers; it’s easy to see which. They’re mostly in shadow, some of them barely showing. The best way to render something shiny is to put a hard black right next to a pure white. Later, I’ll go back in and embellish them a bit more. In this early stage, I just leave them white, and lightly shade all the others. I have to go very carefully because in pen and ink there is no going back from shadows. Once you’ve put that black ink on there, that’s it.

Too dark to draw is one thing, shadows are quite another. In art as in life, shadows give dimension and depth. Their presence makes the light brighter. Light and dark is not to be confused with black and white. In color work, it’s equally important. There’s a lot of beautifully-rendered work out there that looks flat and lifeless, because the artist depended entirely on shape and color to give it form. Guess what, not only are many computers and print devices color-restricted, but most people are slightly color-blind. In other words, your work is not going to be seen exactly as you see it, so if you’ve ignored chiaroscuro, you’re sunk. Here’s a vintage vector graphics piece created with eight colors in various patterns, easily as busy as all that tiny pen and ink scratching in the piece above. But notice the use of chiaroscuro, and thank you, Old Masters.

African Queens ©1988 by Trici Venola with BBDO, Apple Claris.

If you’re wondering if your digital painting works, try looking at it in black and white. If it’s not digital, try looking at it in a mirror. If you can’t tell what’s going on, go back and check your lights and darks!

Suddenly the light is gone and I’m cold to the bone. My knees are so stiff, my heels are so high,  my coat is so long, and this  damn stool is so low, I cannot get up. I flail about trying to hold onto the giant column base, but it’s too slippery. Luckily, some smiling person, usually a Turk, is always there to help.

Working in this echoing vault, full of many languages, I imagine it clouded with incense from swinging censers, the mosaics and marble glittering and gleaming in the torchlight, the floor swept with heavy velvet vestments, clattering Crusader hooves, curve-toed Ottoman sandals, the air full of song and chanting and screams. This place has seen so much life. The tops of all the balustrades are covered with centuries of names. The giant columns show richer color toward the bottom from centuries of hands. The place is full of ghosts, sacred and profane. One day I may be one of them, but just now I’m happy to be able to draw here, in peace and safety, into the dark of the day.

West End, Outer Transept, Hagia Sophia ©2011 Trici Venola

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All art Plein Air by Trici Venola. All art © 2011 by Trici Venola. Thanks for reading. We love your comments.

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