It's been a while since I spent serious time in my studio. As much fun as it is to be running and gunning outdoors shooting in natural light, I'm really in my element when I have the time to properly set up and light a shot, something I can't usually do when I am chasing Jeeps down a trail. I love working with and manipulating light to create the scene as I envision it in my head. California finally got much-needed rain this year, and my lemon tree produced an overabundance of fruit. I have a list of all of the goodies I am going to make with the two quarts of lemon juice I've squeezed so far (with suggestions from friends - lemon bars, lemon meringue pie, lemon curd tart, limoncello, and lemonade - with and without booze), but I couldn't resist grabbing a few lemons to bring into the studio.
Chiaroscuro is an Italian term which literally means "light-dark". It is the dramatic play of light and shadow in an image, where the nuances and subtleties help create the narrative. If the look reminds you of the Old Masters, that's because the technique was developed by da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt in their beautifully dramatic oil paintings. You can learn a lot about fine art photography by studying the techniques of the Old Masters, something every serious fine art photographer should do. Photography at it's essence is really about light.
There is a brief period of time when the light coming through the upper windows of my house is perfect for still life photography. Of course I could always recreate the effect with strobes, but there is something about that beautiful quality of light streaming through my windows that makes me want to use the real thing, not a simulation. It only lasts about a half hour and the time of day changes with the seasons, so I have to watch and wait for it to be just right. Being able to "see" the quality of light is one of the most important skills a photographer needs. I used a black card to create the shadows and depth, and I re-arranged the composition over and over using props from around the house until it felt right. I'm sure you can't tell that the candle has slices of lemon embedded in it, but I felt that it was a stroke of genius when I spotted it in another room. If you've ever wandered around your house desperately searching for just the right prop, you'll know exactly what I mean.
My husband was impressed by the photos but said he never understood the appeal of still life images. He has just started to learn about cinematography and has been paying more attention to the art of photography, so he asked questions and we talked a bit about the chiaroscuro technique and the often underlying meaning of still life images. We talked about symbolism and intent - are the loaf of bread and grapes in a painting meant to represent the Body and Blood of Christ, sustenance, bounty, or merely a random collection of items found in the kitchen?
I explained how there is often a subtle underlying theme of Vanitas in Dutch still life paintings. Vanitas art always includes some reference to man's mortality. Vanitas is Latin for vanity and refers to Ecclesiastes 12: 8 in the Old Testament (Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.), which implies that all human action is transient in contrast to the everlasting nature of faith. More modern vanitas art has moved away from the religious reference, while still implying that man is a mortal being who will one day die. Images in the vanitas genre typically use more obvious symbols such as skulls, dead flowers and rotting fruit, but I gave a more subtle nod with the cut lemon. While it is visually appealing to show the interior of the fruit and it adds to the composition, I explained that it also signifies the fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of death. The same could be said for the unlit candle, although I resisted the typical portrayal of a wisp of smoke from a freshly snuffed candle because this image isn't about vanitas, it is about light. It's also important that my lemons aren't the perfect specimens that I would use in a completely different type of image; the natural imperfections are part of the narrative here. Usually this stuff makes his glaze over, but this time Bill described a chiaroscuro still life painting he remembered from his childhood and what he thought it meant, and I could tell that he was developing a new sense of appreciation for still life and fine art.
I don't usually have a difficult time choosing my favorite composition, but this time I do. The compositions vary only in that the candle is higher and the shadows are deeper in one, and the cut lemon is in a slightly different position. Just when I think I've chosen my favorite, I see something in the other that makes me change my mind.
One of these is going to look great hanging in my kitchen, I just need to decide between the two. Which one do you prefer?
One of these would look great hanging in your kitchen or dining room too. You can purchase a gallery wrapped canvas print by clicking the link below the image.