written by Jerrold Hewson
What is drama and why does it impact us?
Drama literally translates from Greek to mean action, and has its roots in theatre where it was a genre that was neither comedy nor tragedy. The settings were usually real life and they showed the characters at their best, worst, and everything in between. In imagery however, drama also refers to the environment, and in particular, the use of lighting and expression. The more intense a characters situation, emotional propensity, and severity of light, the more dramatic an image or scene is said to be; which in turn, translates to a higher emotional reaction from us the viewer.
From its early beginnings
It was the evolution of Classical Greek art, today referred to as the 'Hellenistic' period, that saw a shift from idealistic artwork, to realistic artwork, showing emotion (pathos) and character (ethos). In the examples below, we see the Classical Greek sculpture of Artemis on the left, notice the fine details in the robes and smooth surfaces on the skin showing a sensitivity towards defining the medium, but the sculpture, though technically perfect, has minimal emotion. In contrast, the sculpture on the right of Laocoon, from the Hellenistic period, brings out a more dramatic handling of character. In this instance the priest and his sons are being consumed by snakes, which shows the believable angst and strain of their contorted battle with Poseidon's beasts. Their faces depict real emotion and their poses reflect true action.
The Renaissance resurrection
After the juvenile art styles of the Dark Ages, it was a refreshing air that brought back humanism and realism into its cultural developments. Observation was once again paramount and the study of perspective and chiaroscuro (the treatment of light and shade) were now the desired norm. On the left we see an art piece from the Middle Ages depicting some sort of spiritual punishment. The perspective of the environment and the handling of anatomy on the figures show a complete disregard for any believability. In contrast, the Renaissance image on the right shows a high understanding of perspective and handling of light. This however, was just the beginning of where this 'new found' study would take them.
An emphasis on dramatics
No one of the time was able to achieve dramatic imagery better than Caravaggio. He lead the way to the artistic movement of Mannerism through his tense posing, and tenebristic (heavily shadowed) lighting style. The images below need no explanation, just look at the peoples faces, their actions, and the lighting that surrounds them. This... is dramatic mastery!
Where we are today
There have been many artistic movements since the late Renaissance, with only some of which requiring the use of dramatics for their impact. Today, as we are flooded with images, more-so than in any other time in history, our ratio of dramatic to non-dramatic ones is strongly skewed. If we intend to really involve a viewer, for them to emotionalize and empathize with the characters or situations within an image, then we must look back at how these ancient masters handled these elements to be able to recreate them for our own imagery. Here are two portraits for a young model, with totally different uses of light, different expressions and different environments. The results however each tell a distinct story and set their own mood.
Use lighting, environment, and expression to create mood and sense of believability and relatability. These three elements alone should dramatically increase the impact of your images!