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In this lesson, we’re going to examine the Renaissance and Baroque uses of light and plane in painting. We’ll compare the characteristics of the two eras and see how they manifest in some sample works of art.

Progression of Styles and Techniques

Art reached one of its high points in the Renaissance world of the 1400s to the 1600s. Artists developed and perfected their technique and focused on taking their works to the zenith of clarity and order. Out of the Renaissance came such great works as The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, the School of Athens by Raphael, and The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.Art didn’t stand still even after it reached the heights of the Renaissance, though. Artists continued to reach for new levels and play with innovations in technique and style. As the 1600s progressed, the Baroque period emerged with all of its drama and intensity. Baroque art is emotional and extravagant.

It appeals to both the senses and the human psyche, and it incorporates stunning contrasts.In this lesson, we’re going to explore how Baroque artists moved beyond the Renaissance to develop their own methods and approaches to art, especially in their use of light and plane.

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Differences in Light and Plane

Major differences between Renaissance and Baroque art appear when we study how artists in the two periods deal with light and plane. Let’s take a moment to define our terms.

In the art world, artists incorporate light into their works in many different ways, but they focus primarily on the contrasts between light and darkness and the gradations of shadow in between. Artists also pay special attention to how they construct their pictures geometrically through the use of planes, which are abstract two-dimensional areas that extend in particular directions.Let’s look at light first.

In the Renaissance, light was a tool that artists used to define their subjects. While their works certainly explore the contrasts between light and darkness, their subjects remain clearly defined with sharp boundaries. Light illuminates the details and forms of artistic subjects in a controlled fashion. Clarity is key.

In the Baroque era, on the other hand, light became a subject in itself. Baroque artists used intense contrasts between light and darkness, a technique called chiaroscuro, to obscure their subjects and create a sense of mystery and drama. In Baroque art, boundaries blur and details and forms slip into shadow. Images merge together and become indistinct, and viewers feel like they have to squint a bit to figure out where one object leaves off and the next begins.

Ambiguity is welcome.Contrast between Renaissance and Baroque art extends into the artists’ use of plane. Renaissance artists focused on balance, symmetry, and parallelism. Their work uses planes that line up in a strong, horizontal fashion and guide the eye smoothly up and down the painting.

Subjects and images are placed proportionately throughout the work, balancing each other regularly against a flat background. Everything is nice and neat and orderly.Baroque works, on the other hand, incorporate multiple planes that head in different directions, meet at strange angles, and break or disappear at various points in the painting. Viewers get the impression of zigzag constructions and enormous depth as well as a bit of chaos, for Baroque artists rarely balance their subjects and tend to disdain symmetry and regular proportions. Contrast and movement are crucial.

A Study in Contrasts

To get a better idea of the contrasts between Renaissance and Baroque art, let’s examine a painting from each era.

Painting: School of Athens, by Raphael

We’ll begin with Raphael’s School of Athens, a classic Renaissance work. Notice that it is light and bright with sharp, clear, well-defined figures. The details on each figure stand out, even down to the folds of robes and the words in books. Notice, too, the strong sense of balance and proportion in this painting. The figures are grouped symmetrically, with similar groups on both sides of the work. The building, too, is depicted symmetrically and regularly, with a series of arches that carry the eye upwards.

Even the steps reveal the set of horizontal planes the artist used to organize his work. Everything feels clear, stable, and orderly.

Painting: the Night Watch, by Remambrandt

Now let’s look at a Baroque piece, namely, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.

Notice first the irregular contrasts between light and dark. Two figures stand out in bright light. The rest fade into shadows and darkness, with hints of light resting on some faces and pieces of clothing. Details, while standing out strongly in some areas, drift into obscurity in others. Viewers feel like they have to squint a bit to peer through the darkness and make out the images hidden within. Further, notice the asymmetry and irregularity of the painting. The eye doesn’t quite know where to go, for it is drawn to multiple places at once.

Nothing is proportional or balanced. Planes stretch off in various directions, creating intersecting angles and zigzags, as in the spears and flag, for instance. The painting’s background is nearly lost in darkness, but even it lacks order or repetition.

Yet this painting is dramatic and appealing and exciting and filled with emotion, and that is exactly what Baroque art is supposed to be.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. There is a sharp contrast between the Renaissance art of the 1400s to 1600s and the Baroque art that followed it. This distinction is particularly evident in Renaissance and Baroque artists’ use of light and plane.Artists incorporate light into their works in many different ways, but they focus particularly on the contrasts between light and darkness and the gradations of shadow in between. In the Renaissance, light was a tool that artists used to define their subjects.

Their works certainly explore the contrasts between light and darkness, but their subjects remain clearly defined with sharp boundaries. Light illuminated the details and forms of artistic subjects in a controlled fashion. In the Baroque era, light became a subject in itself. Baroque artists used intense contrasts between light and darkness, a technique called chiaroscuro, to obscure their subjects and create a sense of mystery and drama.

In Baroque art, boundaries blur and details and forms slip into shadow and obscurity.Artists also pay special attention to how they construct their pictures geometrically through their use of planes, which are abstract two-dimensional areas that extend in particular directions. In the Renaissance, artists focused on order, balance, symmetry, and parallelism. Planes line up in strong, horizontal fashion, and images are placed proportionately throughout the work, balancing each other regularly against a flat background. Baroque artists focus on contrast, motion, and depth.

Their works incorporate multiple planes that zigzag in different directions, meet at strange angles, and break or disappear at various points in the painting.To illustrate these concepts, we examined Raphael’s School of Athens, a classic Renaissance work, and Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, a Baroque piece, and we noticed the stunning differences between these two paintings that show how art develops over time.

Learning Outcomes

As you work through the lesson, determine your ability to:

  • Name major works of Baroque and Renaissance art
  • Compare Baroque and Renaissance uses of light and plane
  • Characterize Renaissance and Baroque art

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