Sunday 4 June 2023

The Shadows of Tomma Abts

It wasn't until very recently that I had a chance to examine multiple works by Tomma Abts up close. In many of her works she uses a faded shadow effect that provides the work with a mostly realistic 3D effect. What struck me about these shadows is that it's very obvious from the actual paintings that the lighter-coloured paint is layered on top of the darker shadow part. This makes a lot of sense, painting wise, as it allows her to use broader brushstrokes and therefore better control the frayed transition from light to dark.

Tomma Abts, Feke, 2013
Detail of faded shadow, yellow layer lies on top of darker green

This is in contrast with the expected technique that many of the old masters employed, whereby the shadow is painted in afterwards by using a darker tone over a lighter ground. Such a technique leaves distinguishable brushstrokes that reveal the small movements made by the hand. Getting a good transition between various tones in this way is a complex task that requires a lot of experience and its exact appaerance is often characteristic of the artist.
Such traces are absent in Abts' work simply because she uses a different technique that is most effective with a large area of flat colour.

Hans Holbein the younger, Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, 1526-1528
Detail of shadow around the chin

It's also worthwile to notice that these kind of frayed edges in the shadows don't appear in works by Abts that have a more complex 'ground' layer, indicating she relies solely on masking techniques in those parts to hide her brushstrokes. 

Tomma Abts, Ihne, 2012
Detail of straight shadow with clear masking residue

Overall I was surprised to see how much of Abts' complex and layered work is the result of relatively basic painting techniques and it just goes to show how much can be achieved when simple methods are carried out with absolute rigour and a great deal of patience.