Inhabitant by Diane Chilson (20×30 charcoal and Conte on Lenox paper) is a dramatic drawing that grips your attention. It’s certainly not your typical portrait. The artist has done several things to make her work both unusual and compelling.
First, the artist chose to focus on the face with no hint of the head; the facial features emerge from the dark void of the background. This literally “in your face” presentation immediately grabs your attention.
The dramatic emotional power of Inhabitant arises from three factors: strong tonal-value contrast, an eccentric composition, and the intense expression depicted on the visage.
Strong tonal-value contrast is the most effective way to command a viewer’s interest, because a picture with highly contrasting lights and darks is simply too hard to ignore. The impact of the strong monochromatic contrast in this picture is immediate and arresting. Adding color would only detract from the graphic power of the almost ghostly face peering from the picture.
The second factor contributing to the drama of Inhabitant has to do with the placement of the face: the composition is subtly off center. The focal points, which are the eyes, are above and to the right of the exact center of the composition, throwing it slightly off balance. This eccentric placement increases the disquieting aspect of the drawing.
Finally, the core of this drawing’s emotional power is the intense expression of the subject. His direct, penetrating gaze is confrontational and oddly disturbing. The viewer wonders about the subject’s identity: who is this person and what can we discover about him in his countenance? Do we see sadness, weariness, or concern? Ultimately, the expression is ambiguous, as facial expressions always are, and therefore intriguing.
The artist used her medium of charcoal and Conte well to capture this indeterminate expression. She made good use of sharp and blended edges around the eyes to depict a soft but deep gaze. The texture of the facial hair is also convincingly rendered. The beard has a flowing quality with enough detail and individual strands to suggest its fullness and form.
I have only two quibbles with this work. First, the edge on the left side of the face (the viewers’ right) appears too hard and regular, making it seem unnatural. What creates this line? Is it the subject’s hair or perhaps a hood? Or does the line simply indicate a shadow? Variations of hard and soft in this line could better describe the contours of the face. Second, there are a few strokes, such as on the nose and lower lip, which are confusing—although these are minor blemishes.
All in all, Diane Chilson’s Inhabitant is a compelling drawing that makes excellent use of value contrast, composition and expression to create a haunting and memorable image.
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Artwork for the Art Clinic is chosen from work posted on the Art Clinic forum, which is part of the Artists Network message board. (You must log on as a registered member to post on the Art Clinic forum.)