Project 3.1 Chiaroscuro: Leon


For this project you will be making one print in the chiaroscuro method from a subject containing a figure or figures based on either a Renaissance painting or a photograph you have taken yourself which reminds you of a painting. The image should contain at least one figure and a simple background. Your figure should contain strong tonal contrasts that can be easily identified as light, medium and dark.

Overall assessment

For this project I wanted to do a portrait image in the style of Caravaggio – an image to capture the drama and ferocity of his chiaroscuro paintings. I based the image on a black and white photograph I tool in a portrait shoot of a young boxer called Leon at Cambridge Camera Club.

I decided on a square format and used square lino tiles from a hardware store. As I do not have specialist cutting equipment for other media I needed to be sure that the different plates would all be the same size. Although they are quite thin and not good for embossed prints, they cut and print exactly the same as other types of lino for this type of multi-plate image. They enable cutting marks to be left, but take a little longer to degrease and absorb the ink evenly.

I like the simplicity of the image and design in multi-plate linocut.  I experimented with different colours, tonal balance and different types of paper. But I found for this image that high tonal contrast between white and black, then a relatively dark mid-tone for high contrast with the lightest areas has most drama. Using just one block on coloured paper like red is also dramatic.

I think this image works very well as a Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro print and viewer feedback has been positive. The basis was the cropping and tonal experimentation on the original photograph to increase its drama. The print works well because of the drama of the eyes, the way the light on the hands and arms lead the viewer to the eyes, the high contrast between the white side of the face next to the dark shadows on the nose and chin.. I also like the pattern of the tattoo. I could have made finer cuts for the smaller highlights. The left eye is also a little messy. This probably needed more simplification between the mid and dark tone plates. I also need to practise drawing hands more as the knuckles are slightly misaligned. But the first impression of the print has high impact.


  1. Selection of the image

For this project I wanted to produce a dramatic image like those of Caravaggio.  Although Caravaggio is Baroque rather than Rensissance, he is generally regarded along with Rembrandt as one of the key painters of chiaroscuro.

I got the opportunity to attend a portrait photoshoot of a model called ‘Leon’ at Cambridge Camera Club. We were each given a series of slots where we could choose the poses, lighting and what we wanted the model to do and position of our camera. This was an excellent opportunity to experiment with different types of pose and lighting and look at the ways these affect the shapes and impacts on the face and figure.

Full figure and torso:  first set of images I experimented with side- and rim-lighting to look at the shadow shapes. But these really lacked punch and interest.

Expressions: The second set of images I experimented a bit with some classic poses and expressions. But again these lacked real punch and conviction.

Fighting: By the final set of images the model has became more confident and animated, and I was also getting more ideas. I learned he did some boxing and so we experimented with different positions. I was trying to get good foreshortening on the punch and convincing angry expression – a bit difficult because Leon is not at all an angry sort of person.

From these last I selected the image below as the most dramatic and ‘Caravaggio-esque’, because of the frown and expression of the eyes, as well as the more dramatic lighting. I liked the way the diagonal of the arm let up to the left eye. I experimented with different crops in Lightroom before deciding on square format, placing the left hand eye on the intersection of rule of thirds. I printed the image in greyscale, exaggerating the contrasts.

2) Designing the print

I had been exploring different types of chiaroscuro style using different tonal ranges and balance between lines and shapes in my LIfe Drawing classes.

I decided that a relatively flat style based on shape dynamics rather than line would suit this image best.

I experimented with different orientations of the image. The most dramatic contrast in the image is between the dark side of the face and the white left eye. I decided it was more dramatic flipped horizontally with the dark side of the face and white eye on the right side of the image so that the shadows on the left hand led the viewer up to the eye from left to right.

3) Cutting the Blocks

I had decided on a square format for compositional reasons. I also wanted the image to be quite large and decided to use square 30mm lino tiles that I had used before from the hardware store. This meant that I could be sure that each plate was machine-cut to exactly the right size. The tiles are also quite thin and so reduce the problems of slippage of tiles and mis-registration on an etching press that I had experienced in Project 1.3.

I then refined my layered designs using A2 tracing paper – corresponding to 2 tonal plates: White/Light-mid grey, dark grey and black.

As this is an image based on shape rather than line, I cut the outline block using white outlines around the shapes. This was also partly for practical reasons because I suffer from RSI and so cutting around black lines is not good for me. Having cut the outline block I then used it to print onto the two plates that would be cut for the multi-plate print. Using the tracing images above, I then cut the mid and dark tone blocks.

The next stage was to explore tonal contrasts and colour. I started by printing a proof in somewhat randomly chosen colours for a range of tone. I then photographed and imported the image into Procreate on my iPad for refinement of the design, adding more white shapes to increase the drama of the right eye, and lines on the arm, knuckles and rim lighting. I then tried some different tone/colour combinations – monochrome and 4 tone block with less contrast between light and mid tone. I decided I preferred the higher contrast between light and mid tone – though actual colours needed to be tested with printing inks.

I also preferred the images with the darker background. But decided to do this through the inking process rather than cutting a third block. Apart from the RSI issues in cutting another block, it would have been difficult to cut a separate block just for the background at the top because the plate would not have any support on the bottom half unless I added black tones on the figure itself. This would have made the image look flatter and reduced the impact of the figure coming forward.

I then refined the blocks and did some experiments printing just the dark tone block onto coloured paper, tissue paper and newsprint. Before finally deciding on the brown image on thick cartridge paper.

Printing the edition

I printed the edition with an etching press, using a registration sheet for the plate and two-sided tape around the paper.

I used Caligo safewash inks because I am allergic to solvents and so continual cleaning of the blocks between inkings would have been very problematic for me. On the other hand, water-based inks dry too quickly to maintain colour consistency for a print run of this complexity. After some experimentation I chose Burnt Sienna for the mid-tone, Burnt Umber for the dark tone, and added Phthalo Blue to the Burnet Umber for the background. The background proved relatively easy to ink up darker with a small roller at the end.

I printed an edition of 7 prints, not including my first colour test sheet that was slightly mis-registered because of issues manipulating such a large sheet of paper. Registration on the whole print run was acceptable, although a couple had very slight hairline mis-registration. Despite my best efforts and the registration guides, the paper had a tendency to stick to the plate at one end before I had been able to lay down and check the whole sheet of paper. If I had adjusted the paper at that point, the image itself would have blurred. With hindsight I should have placed both blocks the other way up so that the end with the least dark ink was laid down first so the paper could be fully aligned at the last moment.

I cleaned the plate every two prints rather than between every print, because of speed and because I was worried the ink would dry on the inking block if I had to wait for the lino to dry between every print. This did lead to slight differences in inking, particularly some lighter shading on areas like the hair. But I find these quite interesting as they give more form. There were also slight differences in inking of the cutting marks that gave slightly different effects. I could have explored these further.


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