Robert D'Arista, Monotype

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Tonal Games: the Mezza-Macchia and Notan

Spill your wine in Italy and you might hear your waiter utter the word, "macchia," which means stain, among other things. Consider for a moment an accidental stain from a spilled glass of red wine. The shape of the stain is essentially an abstract pattern, like a Rorsach blot test. In fact, this is what everything in nature looks like to your eye in that nano-second before your brain has "read" the pattern and figured out what, and where, everything is.

It's often said that part of an artist's training is learning to see, which is a stripped-down way of saying learning to bring conscious awareness, critical assessment, and emotional excitement to the perceptual process. From it's beginnings in optical sensation, to its culmination in emotion, association, and "meaning," the perceptual process is, for most people, a completely unconscious chain of events. For the artist, by contrast, nothing can be taken for granted. To paraphrase Henry James, the artist is someone on whom nothing is lost. The sense of sight is like the shell which conceals the pearl, or the rough ore which contains the gold. It's not enough to simply copy what you see. You have to dig for the treasure, and sift it out. How do you do that? The mezza-macchia is one strategy.

 The mezza-macchia is a grand-child of the kind of radical chiaroscuro practiced by Caravaggio in the 17th century. Chiaroscuro, as we've discussed before, is the systematic behavior of light falling on form that Leonardo da Vinci, and other artists of the Renaissance, observed and codified into artistic practice. Equating tonal variations in nature to the value scale of art made it possible to render three-dimensional effects of light and shadow in powerful new ways.

So where does the term mezza-macchia come from, and what exactly is it? As early as the 16th century Vasari uses the word "macchia" to describe the rough, less refined chiaroscuro in Titian's late paintings, a quality that today we might call "painterly."* The word macchia gradually came to denote not only the essential tonal patterning of the subject but its effect, or its emotional impact. Mezza, in Italian, means half. So, mezza-macchia, as it came to be known and practiced in the art academies and ateliers of Italy, means a kind of condensed chiaroscuro that dispenses with some of the tones found in the typical gradations of classical tonal rendering.

The "Mezza-macchia" is to western European art what "Notan" is to eastern art, a study of light and dark. Like notan, the mezza-macchia study is limited to two or three values, the game being to reduce the chaos of visible reality to a structural essence. The resulting pattern, stripped of familiar details and identities, reveals abstract design forces that can potentially help or hinder composition. Especially in the work of older masters, particularly Poussin, for whom drawing was more a kind of visual thinking than a finished work, the reduction of the subject to simple masses of light and dark was an effective way to test and resolve issues of composition.

From the following examples you can see that the concept of the mezza-macchia has played a powerful role in shaping the teaching and practice of drawing and painting throughout the centuries and, in fact, continues on into the work of many contemporary artists for whom drawing is a self-sufficient art form, not just a means to an end.

*from Norma Broude's wonderful book on the Macchiaioli, a group of Italian artists who lived and worked in Tuscany in the 19th century. 

Double click on the slideshow to see full scale, high resolution images.

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