Contemporary and historic examples of the Chiaroscuro method

Pressing Matters – Modern Printmaking Magazine, Issue 1.











I was recently given a copy of Issue 1 of ‘Pressing matters’ a Modern Printmaking Magazine, whilst reading it I came across an article about contemporary Wood engraver Ben Goodman.

Ben Goodman’s work involves mostly intricately cut black & white wood engravings, his subject matter is often the human condition, his work sensitively captures human expressions and emotion. I think this is keenly visible in the piece ‘Maxwell 2’, see image below…

‘Maxwell 2’ Wood Engraving on paper by Ben Goodman











This same sensitivity is evident in his 11 stage reduction print entitled ‘Magrit’, which features layers of tonal value, in black, grey and white.

‘Margrit’ 11 layer reduction wood engraving by Ben Goodman












I was initially unsure if I could classify his engravings as part of the chiaroscuro method, but the more I considered them the more I felt inclined to describe his work as a modern approach to ancient method. His subject matter may not include ornate architectural masterpieces or the draping of cloth but his sensitivity to tonal value seems to me to sit easily alongside that of the original proponents of the method.

Perhaps it’s just a modern mentality, but I actually prefer his approach to the method to the renaissance period’s. I like that the person is allowed to dominate the image, their expression and character taking centre stage as opposed to the theatrics of dramatic scenery or clothing. This is all interesting to consider when thinking about how I will approach my own chiaroscuro scene in project 2 of this section.

Personal musings aside the article with Ben Goodman provided me with an interesting example of someone working in the chiaroscuro method, Goodman mentioned Sydney Lee.

Sydney Lee is not a name I was familiar with. It seems he was recognised during his lifetime as a prolific printmaker, mastering multiple disciplines, from aquatint to mezzotint, wood engraving to dry point. According to Robbert Meyrick  ‘He became known and acclaimed for his ‘studies of picturesque old buildings … rich in the patina and atmosphere of history’.

However little remains of his legacy, I did find out that Robbert Meyrick curated an exhibition of and catalogue of his prints in 2013 to try and elevate the profile of the printmaker.

I found an interesting blog post discussing Meyrick’s efforts written by Scott Ponemone.

‘Spanish Courtyard’, 1926 Wood engraving by Sydney Lee











In ‘Spanish Courtyard’ the intricacy of Lee’s engravings is clearly evident. I find it interesting that he captures not just the tone of the scene before him but a sense of the textural elements around him, the stone, the fabrics, the ageing of the buildings.

‘Colosseum’, 1926 Wood Engraving by Sydney Lee.











The piece ‘Colosseum’ has a richer variety of tonal qualities, capturing the versatility of the wood engraving method as well as Lee’s skill level. I can’t really imagine being able to recreate the same print in lino for myself. I find the mix of tone and texture in this print to be really appealing – he seems to approach the subject matter with his own style whilst retaining a level of accuracy in his draughtsmanship.

Having looked briefly at Lee’s work I decided to buy the catalogue of his prints, I will write about this one it arrives and see where it takes me.


Neil Bousfield

Neil Bousfield is an contemporary artist and printmaker whose work tends to focus on landscape, home and place. His work relies heavily on research in the form of drawings and observations from his life and environment.

I’ve included him here as I feel that whilst he may not describe himself as a chiaroscuro artist or printmaker his work has a flavour of that.

In the image below, ‘Over the Wall’, Bousfield has created a wood engraving with a limited colour palette, which reminds me of the approach of chiaroscuro pieces. The colour palette is not strictly limited to one tonal family but the overall finished result is a highly tonal print. There are clear areas of lighter, mid and dark tone, each rich with textural marks and gestures.


‘Over the Wall’ Wood Engraving by Neil Bousfield.








The following two engravings, ‘Collections Stuff From a Norfolk Beach’ & ‘A Load of Old Cameras’, are of particular appeal due to their subject matter or theme. Both come from a period of a few years, 2013-2016, when Bousfield was exploring the idea of collecting objects as a way of exploring the relationships between place and history.

I find that I am often personally drawn to collections, and attach memories to objects as a from of curating personal history.

As in the first example both pieces have a limited colour palette, which I think adds to the sense of the objects belonging together as a collection or set of items. The prints are meticulously detailed and yet for me retain a sense of life and individuality, it doesn’t feel like an exercise in replicating exactly what was before the artist.


‘Collections: Stuff From A Norfolk Beach’ by Neil Bousfield.












‘A Load of Old Cameras’ Wood Engraving by Neil Bousfield.









The final example I will share on this blog, ‘Fork Knife Spoon’, is the most reminiscent of the Chiaroscuro method. The colour palette appears to come from the same tonal family of red/orange. Here the image is tightly cropped around an arrangement of everyday items. I like the sense of movement and connection between all the objects, they feel alive almost, despite being stationary objects. Perhaps this is a projection of the artists familiarity or affection for the items?

What appeals to me too is the quality of textures and tones created by different marks on the block on each tonal group. I think that helps with the overall feel of the piece – it’s lively despite involving a potential mundane subject matter.

I tried to do some further analysis or reflection on this series of works in my sketchbook, by printing off and annotating around several pieces.



‘Fork Knife Spoon’ Wood Engraving by Neil Bousfield










2 thoughts on “Contemporary and historic examples of the Chiaroscuro method

  1. Edward Lincoln

    Thank you for the analysis. I wonder as a student printmaker what books talk specifically about textured engravings like Neil’s

  2. Ed

    It’s very hard to understand how the multi tones and multicolor come from one print block and one printing what in the world is that method


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