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1. the case for black & white

Visitor Feedback

1. James Hubbard
2. Ron Irvine
3. Philip Rogers
4. Scott Mellgren
5. Tam Taylor

James Hubbard adds:

"With regard to comparisons and controversy between black & white painting vs. colored painting, one can find no better example than the restored frescos of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. The ceiling had been shrouded in residue from clouds of dust and smoke for hundreds of years. As a result, his murals were "studies" of form in graduated and muted tones. Scholars and visitors looking at the frescos in 2001 would have an entirely different reaction than those looking previous to the restoration. In fact, the restoration raised questions and controversy about the assumed methods and purposes of Michelangelo's art. Did Michelangelo, being primarily a stone sculptor of forms, intend his images to be muted, thus emphasizing 3D forms on a 2D surface? Or, as current conservation and studies postulate, was Michelangelo also interested in expressing painterly form by using large expanses of contrasting and brilliant colors?
"I feel the answer, which we may never know, is not as important as the controversy itself. I think Michelangelo would be amused at the reaction by current scholars. Like all great masters, Michelangelo has the last laugh. Whatever his original goal, art patrons have benefited by observing both the richness of his painterly forms emphasized previous to the current restoration and his command of glorious color which was revealed by the present restoration."

Photographer Ron Irvine responds:

"As a black and white photographer, I think you have missed the point of black and white imagery. OK, publishers wanted to be cheap - just as net people do not want to waste bandwidth with 30+ Meg image files. So they used black and white to copy a 3 dimensional, texture and colour rich image. Painters use their medium to create an image rich in texture, shape, colour and emotion. You can not get the same feel from a colour photo or scan. Black and white is one more step away from the original. The artist uses the medium to create the image, a copy in another medium will be different.
"Converting a scanned image to black and white is non trivial. Black and white is rarely black and white. The blacks are brown, yellow, blue or other shades of black; the whites cream, amber, rose or other pastel or off white. The tone of the image can change the feel of the image considerably. So after direct conversion some toning will be required.
"The use of light, the tonal response of film/software to the colour spectrum will change the image. In photography I can use an extended red black and white film to reduce the effect of blemishes in a portrait (female), or use ortho film to darken red lips to create a graphic image (male). Similarly, converting a colour image to black and white does not mean a technical conversion of colour to grey scale. A profile against a forest contains dramatic flesh/green separation of the image, in black and white the grey may be the same for both resulting in a very flat and dull image, even though this was not the intent of the artist.
"Most important is the light. Black and white photography (and imagery) is about the light. Light is used to create contrast, model 3 dimensions, add mood and feeling. The artist needs to understand this when creating the image. If one is lucky an image created in colour can be converted to an OK black and white image. But an image created in black and white has a better chance of capturing the power of the black and white medium. I have many black and white images that would not be very interesting in colour, yet in black and white they stand out. I also have some black and white images that I have toned, dyed or hand painted to add colour.

"Summary: Black and white is not the absence of colour, but the restricted use of colour with emphasis on other aspects of the image."

Philip Rogers contributes the following comments:

  • The Artist intended that the image be in color. Thus, the lighting is based on that premise. In photography, Lighting is Everything.

  • In photographing in black and white, the colors photographed must not all equal the same tone of gray, when the negative is printed.  This intended result can be influenced by filters on the lens, the type of black and white film selected, the developing process and the printing process.

  • In my experience, color prints, copied in black and white, or even color negatives printed as black and white, result in a flatter picture, with far less "pop" than if the original was made with a black and white film and processed accordingly.

  • I hate to speak for an artist that I don't/didn't even know, but I'll bet if they were given only black and white materials to use, their original would differ substantially from the results of a black and white photograph of their color picture.
Scott Mellgren adds:

"I am a photographer of 15 years. I've worked at newspapers, publications, and lots of weddings. I am only moonlighting now as I have another career and family.

"I don't paint or study paintings very often. But, on the topic of photography, I feel that black and white prints engage the viewer more and inspire more imagination from the viewer. When a color photo is viewed, there is nothing left out. Everything is rendered as if you had been there. Our brains instantly recognize colors and associations made from color, ie: an apple is red, a sky is blue. When a black and white is viewed, the observer is forced to study the photo more and fill-in-the-blanks, thus using more brain power, imagination and building a personal relationship with the image. Perception is the key here. I can look at a black and white image for 2 or 3 times as long as I look at color. It's more entertaining, engaging, and personal. Color makes me feel like an observer, just looking at it. As for painting, if the artist used color paint, then that is the intended product and should be viewed as such."

Tam Taylor comments:

Philip Rogers comments that the artist, given only Black and White as a media would produce works substantially different from those created in colour. The answer isn't a simple one, but in general Philip is right.

It depends very much on the artist.

1. Some artists have two entirely different genre. Albrecht Durer excelled at both brightly coloured paintings and at woodcuts and engravings. His black and white works somehow make us "see" the glorious colours of the illustrations.

2. Some use black and white merely as drafts and studies for coloured works or to record thoughts, events and designs. Most of Leonardo's monochrome work falls into this category. So do the exquisite drawings of Holbein.

3. Some excel at black and white while failing to delight in colour. Piranesi is a prime example. His architectural views and interiors are wonderfully exciting as black and white works. They are as intriguing as Escher. His coloured works are much less interesting.

4. Some carry the monochromatic techniques into their coloured works. Caravaggio painted great altarpieces in colour, but he saw with the eye of a black and white photographer. His vision revolutionised painting.

5. Some create black and white works that are very little different in style to other works that they have created in colour. Degas' charcoal drawings and his pastel sketches are technically handled in much the same way.

6. There are also artists who through poverty created many oil paintings, not in black and white, but in cheap earth-coloured monochome, perhaps begging a little pale Venetian yellow and a little madder for flesh tones and an a little vermilion for highlights. The early paintings of Vincent van Gogh are mostly monochrome. Some of them, particularly the Weaver at the Loom pictures show the photographer's appreciation of monochrome.

The successful monochrome photographer is essentially an artist who can look at a scene in colour and translate it into a purely tonal artwork. Artists whose oil paintings indicate that they were able to "see" with the eye of the monochrome photographer before the advent of photography include:-

Leonardo - Virgin of the Rocks, the unfinished St Jerome, the London Cartoon

Titian- The Man with Blue Sleeves, Assumption of the Virgin

Tintoretto- The Last Supper

Caravaggio- Death of the Virgin etc

Georges de la Tour- The Repentant Magdalene

Vermeer- Woman weighing Pearls etc

Rembrandt- Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery etc

David- Portrait of Madame Moitessier in a black dress

Velazquez- The Ladies in Waiting etc

Joseph Wright of Derby- The Orrery etc

Goya- the Third of May

Some C19th artists consciously utilised photographic-style composition and lighting in painted works. Manet, Degas and Whistler were among the earliest. The photos with which they were familiar were either monochrome or hand-tinted.

Then there are those much earlier painters who saw the possibilities of contrasting light and dark, while not employing an appearance of shadow to achieve it. Many of Cranach's painting's depict pearly figures against a lustrous green background. Uccello's Battle of San Romano, Pisanello’s Vision of St Eustace and Botticelli's Primavera are notable examples.

Where are the earliest works that demonstrate the perception of the modern black and white photographer?

Back in the early 1300s Taddeo Gaddi, a pupil of Giotto, painted the frescoes in the Baroncelli Chapel of Santa Croce in Florence. These include The Angels announcing the Birth of Jesus to the Shepherds. It is the earliest known large painting of a night scene and is preceeded by only a very few known manuscript paintings of the same subject that attempt to give a realistic impression of night, as against Simone Martini's predella picture of the Deposition, which shows a darkened sky but no other indication that it is near sunset. Taddeo has created a work which is virtually monochrome grey and white, with yellow to indicate the Glory. He has sought to create a convincing light source.

It was a hundred years before another artist took up the challenge. This was Piero della Francesca at the Church of St Francis in Arezzo. In the Cycle of the Cross there is a wonderful scene of the Dream of Constantine in which Piero utilises all his study of light to produce a convincing night scene, once again with an angel as the source of light. While these paintings are indeed in colour, in both cases it is the tonality that is the significant feature.

Leonardo then experimented with light as he did with everything else, and urged his pupils to do the same. His use of subtle tonal gradation to model forms is unsurpassed.

It was Caravaggio who truly realised the dramatic potential of light and shade, and made it the feature of his work. He opened a whole new vision in the representation of Biblical stories and martyrdoms. He gave us not only the window but the candle, the lantern and the spotlight. The light that touches Velazquez' little Princess, that illumines the Night Watch and bathes the heroic central figure in Goya's Third of May was lit by Caravaggio

I'd like to thank these Artchive visitors for taking the time to write these informed responses, and encourage others to send similar feedback to any Juxtapositions piece.

©2004 by Mark Harden's Artchive

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