Ever make a pirate’s treasure map? It needs to look old. As a boy I did it. As a boy my son did it, too. The key is to make it look worn, weathered and burned. The most effective technique is to scorch the corners of the paper with a flame. Frequently, the first attempts resulted in a pyrotechnical disaster. This darkening of the edges concentrates our attention on the legible information still lingering in the center. We look through the window with its dark frame to the light beyond. Rembrandt realized the value of concentrating light on the central motif while burning in the edges with a dark black browns. Other artists would exploit the framing benefits of darkened corners making an oculus of light in the center of the picture. With Rembrandt we can almost drink the dark air surrounding his subject, it feels so rich and heavy yet, not impenetrable. Example 1 shows Rembrandt employing this design technique within the new tradition of chiaroscuro, light vs. dark. Example 2 brings us Frederick Church in the mid 19th century again with darkened corners framing his colossal landscape, “Heart of the Andes”.
Other Artists to exploit this design method include both painters and photographers. “Peace and Plenty” by George Inness uses burned corners to frame the elliptical light of the center ( example 3). Contemporary photographer Jack Spencer borrows the Hudson River Palette, Serpentine design and burned corners for his elegantly mysterious landscape photograph of Yellowstone (example 4). The 17th century palette of Rembrandt and the burned corners give a sense of history, a patina of time to photograph as it does for contemporary painters. The process links works to an art historical tradition investing the works suggesting myth, metaphor, and antique mystery.
In the 19th century photographers were quick to adopt this dark design convention of painters for their own portrait work ( example 5, a photo by William Langeheim from the 1860s.) Other early photographers tried further manipulations of the burned corner design system. Demachy tried beginning with a perimeter of light then moving toward an interior elliptical shape of darkness and finally moving into a last central motif of light ( example 6 photo by Robert Demachy circa 1900, experimental oil print process). A Contemporary photographer (example 7, Michael Mitchell, 1960s) has delivered his motif with startling power by isolating with in a field of complete darkness. The image curiously moves toward to viewer but, stays framed and composed against its field of black.
As a painter I too wish to exploit art’s historical continuity and cultivate an association with times past. Below are recent examples of my use of darkness as a frame for the painting’s design. In examples 8 (” Pond Mysteries”) and 9 (” Bright Distance”) you see how I burn the edges, the old pirate map technique. But, I slowly blend the darkened areas to the central area of light. I further allow the more illumined central area to have more visual activity and textural variation. In examples 10 (“Pond Mysteries II”) and 11 (“Water Echoes”) instead of burning the corners for a circular or elliptical design I use a horizontal/vertical format. Example 10 shows a painting framed by two sidebars of darkness, like a curtain. Example 11 uses horizontal bands above and below the motif to frame the image. The bottom band of darkness is larger to give an impression of greater proximity to that area of the image.