Chiaroscuro is an art term. It describes the use of light and dark in drawing and painting. Some painters, like Caravaggio, were known for their use of high contrast in painting. In fact, Caravaggio made the exaggerated use of chiaroscuro popular because he used it to such excellent effect. I learned this in college as a double major in art history and psychology. (I ended up dropping the art history pursuit about a quarter from finishing it but that is another story.)

I have always loved art in all of its forms, visual, written, spoken, and performance. I have been fortunate to have natural talents in music and writing, and to have been able to cultivate those skills through formal education. In the visual arts, I have been more of an appreciator and a recognizer. I greatly appreciate painting and drawing and I think my taste is fairly well-developed. I have learned to be a decent photographer, which is often recognizing that what I see through the lens is beautiful in form, color, texture, light, and composition. Interior decoration is similar. It is being able to arrange objects in a pleasing fashion.

Making visual art from scratch has been harder. I started pottery three years ago. I don’t sculpt but I have slowly gotten decent at using the pottery wheel. I am good at following steps. I can check my progress as I throw and see if the form is pleasing. I am learning to be less fearful of the paint brush. I am making highly decorated pieces.

Last month, I started a drawing class. I am not naturally good at drawing and painting. I work with kids. I see what some of them can do with little or no instruction. We introduced ourselves at the first class. I said, “I am a child/adolescent psychologist. My drawing skills are at about the level of a 6-year-old. I know this because I draw with a lot of 6-year-olds.” I was making a joke but I was not kidding.

The instructor was really not very good but in watching him, I learned a few things that my brain was ready to absorb. My line drawings are still terrible. However, the use of shading was a revelation. Simple line drawings are almost all light. Shadow made my drawing come alive. We don’t often think of life lurking in the shadows. We speak of the “specter of death”, not the “specter of life”.

When I visit my dad these days, it is like he is floating away into increasing darkness, like we are losing him bits at a time. On some days, there are more glimpses of the person I recognize as him. There is more light and less shadow. On other days, I sit with he and my mom, in near silence. Sometimes he makes hand gestures without words. Sometimes he says something out-of-the-blue, phrases that are appropriate for social conversations with family members, but nonetheless disconnected from what is going on.

It occurs to me today that until my dad is dead, he is alive. His shadows are his life as much as the light is his life. This is hard to accept, this new, and ever changing reality. But I will keep sitting with it, sitting with him in the specter of life.