Technique Tuesday: Allusion

What is it?

Today’s “Technique Tuesday” post is another good example of the way we’d like to use this series to delve into aspects of fine art that go beyond very literal, physical techniques of applying paint to canvas. While fascinating and important, those only describe a few of the many facets that go into the way that artists visually communicate with the viewer. Just as the use of paint in certain ways (impasto, glazing, multi-loaded brush) adds to the way a painting communicates, so do less physical and more conceptual techniques, like bokeh, atmospheric perspectiveand positive and negative spaceStill further, and perhaps most obviously, the subject matter of the painting often does a great deal of communicating as well. Today’s “technique” is an incredibly prevalent one throughout the history of art: allusion!

Allusion is a term that is typically applied to a literary device which involves a passing reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance, without describing it in detail. Literary allusion draws on a stock of knowledge that the author expects the reader will already have, in order to give a context through which the reader will instantly understand the work more fully. (Some more succinct examples: if an author references someone’s “Achilles heel,” and the reader is familiar with the mythology of Achilles, the reader instantly understands that this is a reference to someone’s one weakness. If someone references a nose growing like Pinocchio’s, the reader instantly understands that this references the telling of lies, as in The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio’s nose grew whenever he told a lie.)

Let’s take a look at the way that allusion has been used as a technique in visual art, as well!

Examples in art history:

Paintings with Biblical Allusions: (left) Rembrandt van Rijn, “Storm on the Sea of Galilee”; (right) Caravaggio, “The Conversion of St. Paul”

Narrative storytelling is one of the oldest purposes of the visual arts. During the Renaissance, this became an especially important function of art, as the Christian Church began to use paintings to educate a largely illiterate public about the stories of the Bible, and commissioned countless religious paintings and frescoes portraying a vast variety of moments from the Bible. As European art continued to develop, allusion began to be used more and more frequently. Whether Biblical allusion, allusion to Greek and Roman mythology, or literary allusions, these references help to deepen the viewer’s understanding of what the painting seeks to communicate.

Paintings with Mythological Allusions: (left) Sandro Botticelli, “Primavera”; (right) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Persephone”

Paintings with Literary Allusions: John William Waterhouse, (left) “Miranda” referencing Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and (right) “Morgan Le Fay” referencing the legends of King Arthur.


Examples from Principle Gallery:

(left to right) Geoffrey Johnson, “Tower of Babel”; Cindy Procious, “Plastic Paradigm III”; Terry Strickland, “The Seamstress”

Now and then, paintings containing allusion will come through the gallery. Sometimes the allusions are Biblical scenes, such as in Geoffrey Johnson’s “Tower of Babel,” and sometimes they’re a reference to something from pop culture, like the Barbie doll in Cindy Procious’s “Plastic Paradigm” series or the Superman logo in Terry Strickland’s “The Seamstress.”

Never before this month, however, has an exhibition here at the gallery been so full of artworks containing allusion! Robert Liberace’s solo exhibition, currently on display, is an amazing collection of paintings and drawings showcasing the artist’s astounding skill at depicting the human form. And, in learning the inspirations and the names of these pieces of artwork, the viewer learns that many of them are mythological and literary allusions! Take, for example, these pieces from Robert’s “Don Quixote” inspired series:

“Visions of Adventure”

“Knight of La Mancha”


How do you think the references to the classic novel change the way the artwork communicates, and the viewer’s understanding of it? Consider the same with these images of mythological figures Atlas and Orpheus:



To view the entirety of Robert Liberace‘s current exhibition and explore all of the allusions contained, stop by the gallery soon or check out our website here!



Technique Tuesdays: Tenebrism

Technique Tuesday Tenebrism

Remember the Technique Tuesday post where we took a look at chiaroscuro? Today’s post is going to take a look at a very cool technique, closely related to chiaroscuro: tenebrism.

What is it?

Tenebrism, like chiaroscuro, is all about the use of lights and darks. Where chiaroscuro is used to create a sense of depth, three-dimensionality, and realistic texture, tenebrism involves using the stark contrast of light and dark for dramatic effect in a composition. It’s sometimes called the “spotlight effect”, and almost always features a stark, black background with the foreground, or at least some parts of it, dramatically illuminated.

Examples from art history:

The quintessential master of tenebrism in art history is the Baroque era Italian painter Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s work always bore a characteristic sense of drama, partially from the emotionally charged subject matter he would choose, but mostly thanks to the intense tenebrism. The concept of dramatic illumination became a popular one during the Baroque period following the Renaissance, and is seen frequently in both Italian and Dutch works from that time. Tenebrism has an exquisite way of creating a dramatic and powerful feel in a painting, but it also has a way of making the illuminated forms and colors absolutely glow.

caravaggio collage

Works by Caravaggio: “The Conversion of Saint Paul”, “The Taking of Christ,” and “The Calling of Saint Matthew”

You can get an idea from just these three works how Caravaggio manipulated contrast and areas of light and dark to not only set the mood, but also to draw the eye of the viewer to the most important focuses of the composition. Here are a couple of examples of the way tenebrism was used by painters further north, in the Dutch “Golden Age.”

tenebrism collage 2

(left) Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Night Watch”; (right) Abraham Mignon, “Still Life with Fruit”

Examples from Principle Gallery:

As art has evolved over time, popular trends have come and gone, but tenebrism is an effect that can still be seen used frequently by today’s artists, each in a way that complements his or her unique painting style. Here are a few examples of dramatic tenebrism on works here at Principle Gallery: (click the artist’s name to see more works by Jeremy Mann, Richard Murdock, and Brian Martin)

pg tenebrism collage

(left) Jeremy Mann, “The Melancholy Passerine”; (middle) Richard Murdock, “Wrapped Lilacs”; (right) Brian Martin, “Departure”

And last but not least, here’s a truly gorgeous example of a still life featuring tenebrism. This work by Greg Gandy is titled “Flowers with Insects,” and is a part of the current two-person exhibition, “Tempo and Pause” featuring works by Greg Gandy and Valerio D’Ospina. (Click here to view all the works in the show on our website!) Click the image to get a closer look, and check out how beautifully the contrast between the dark background and the illuminated flowers and vase makes the colors really glow!

Flowers with Insects 36x24 HR

Greg Gandy, “Flowers with Insects”