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Art & Design

  • A Matter of Tone: Chiaroscuro Woodblock Prints, 1520-1800

    Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

    July 16 –October 31, 2004

  • In 1516, Ugo da Carpi petitioned the Venetian Senate for exclusive copyright for “a new way to print chiaro et scuro [light and dark].” His technique relied on printing multiple woodblocks over each other on a single piece of paper to create layers evoking the tonal washes of ink drawings. Ugo’s interest in tone (the range of values from black through grays to white) paralleled a new and growing contemporary Italian interest in monochromatic drawings, paintings, and façade decorations for houses. Ugo stated that the technique would be “useful to many who take pleasure in drawing” (see Evelyn Lincoln, The Invention of the Italian Renaissance Printmaker. New Haven: 2000, p. 72); yet from the start, chiaroscuro prints required the translation of drawing into what became an independent exploration of value, tone, and form in print media. Despite Ugo’s claim to have invented chiaroscuro printmaking, works on paper created with multiple colors and multiple woodblocks dated back more than a half century in northern Europe. The colored initial letters that appeared in German books of the mid-15th century were followed by experiments with chiaroscuro techniques in the first decade of the 16th century. Whereas northern artists typically used a key block to provide a continuous outline, Ugo’s innovation dispensed with the key block and relied solely on tone blocks to create an image built from overlapping areas of different tonal values. Chiaroscuro prints were difficult and expensive to produce. They required multiple runs through the press, and the layers of ink were easily printed out of alignment. Only a few artists took up the challenge, and by the 19th century the technique was rarely used; yet the tonal range and virtuoso block-cutting continue to fascinate viewers to this day.

Selected objects from A Matter of Tone: Chiaroscuro Woodblock Prints, 1520-1800