Monkeys, Encouragement and French
The Carpenter's Gift: A Christmas Story

Is your work good? Truth, Chiaroscuro, and the Creative life

An artist painting at the port near our vineyard

TODAY'S FRENCH WORD: clair-obscur

    : chiaroscuro 

Chiaroscuro in art is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures. Similar effects in cinema and photography also are called chiaroscuro. -Wikipedia


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ECOUTEZ /LISTEN to Jean-Marc read the following French Download MP3 or Download WAV

Nous sommes chacun de nous notre propre clair-obscur, notre propre morceau d''illusion qui essaie d' devenir quelque chose de solide , quelque chose de réel. We're each of us our own chiaroscuro, our own bit of illusion trying to emerge into something solid, something real.--Libba Bray 


    by Kristin Espinasse

Instead of dedicating an entire post to my fear of the telephone, I will tell you what happened when I ventured, recently, to answer The Ringing Boogeyman. A woman whom I had met many months ago, at the physical therapist's, spoke. "Do you know who this is?" she asked.

Strong and énoncé, I recognised the voice.

"C'est L'Artiste!" she confirmed. (No, she didn't say that, but in the interest of privacy, we'll say she did!)  

Did I remember her? came the next question. But how could I forget the petite francaise wearing head-to-toe elegance. In dramatic eye-shadow, her hair neatly styled, she told me about her passion for painting, eventually sharing with me a pressing question: just what did her latest art works evoke? What did the viewer feel--what was the spectator's true, unbiased opinion of The Artist's  paintings? Would I come over to her studio and tell her what I thought of her work?

Looking back on that day at the physical therapist's, I am struck at how--even at the age of 90, with a lifelong career in art--one still struggled with uncertainty in regards to one's work.

Fast forward now to three weeks ago. The little piece of paper with L'Artist's phone number was finally pushed under my desk calendar.  I never found the courage to be her critic. 

"I have a favor to ask," the Artist said, over the phone this time. "I have just received a catalogue from a foreign art gallery. The introduction talks about my work. But I cannot understand English. Would you be willing to come over and translate it for me?"

One week later,  a great big mutt greeted me at the gate of a secluded home. "Corsa! quit barking!" The Artist scolded. Delighted by the scene unfolding before me, I followed, awe-stricken, past the flowering garden, past the atelier, to the kitchen entrance where a place was set for me at a table that might have been a 19-century still-life. I took my place before  an espresso cup and saucer made of pottery, and a dish of marscapones. Looking around, I tried to take it all in, without appearing impolite--this place rich with style and savoir-vivre.

Above the kitchen range, a giant abstract painting in golden tones seemed to cast light across the room, to the table before me where a bowl of oranges drew my regard back to the kitchen door, where Corsa the dog wagged his body, mirroring the excitement inside of me at being in the presence of Inspiration. By now I had visited the atelier across the garden, and seen 6 foot hight paintings stacked twenty deep the entire circumfrance of the workshop. Standing there, I became aware of the artist standing behind me. That is when I remembered the original request: an honest reaction to the artist's work. But instead of reacting, I stood quietly--trying to "really see" the abstract, lively and colorful works before me.

In a disaster of consequences (my delayed reaction), the artist quickly apologized, whisking me out of the atelier, back into the kitchen--never to know my innermost thoughts, thoughts still as abstract as the canvas before me!

Settled down to work, now, at the table, I opened the art catalogue, expecting to breeze through the translation. But line after line I was tongue-tied--completely incapable of finding the French words to convey the abstract English sentences I was reading. 

That is when the artist gracefully let me of the hook. "Chiaroscuro?" she repeated, as I tried understand the unfamiliar word. "It is a term we use in art." Waving her hand, The Artist assured me she had gotten the gist of the text, and that I should not trouble myself further. But I was very troubled at having let her down as a critic and as a translator!

Later, mopey at home, the chiaroscuro term returned to me. Looking it up I happened upon the words of Libba Bray--words that would  finally, express my emotions as I stood before The Artist's latest works:

We're each of us our own chiaroscuro, our own bit of illusion trying to emerge into something solid, something real.

These words spoke to me. And I finally understand how a 90-year-old artist can still doubt her work, being, herself, ever in the process of emerging.

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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety