Snow collecting on the roof of a building across from where I work, the first snow of the year in fact, took me back to high school art class and learning about chiaroscuro, the technique of using strongly contrasting lights and darks in drawing. I was always a pretty lousy art student, not that great at drawing, but I love jargon, especially art jargon. It was a cold day, overcast, close the holidays, and there was talk of snow which made everyone a little jumpy. Or a lot jumpy. In every class while we were bent over our desks there was always one kid in the back who’d yell out “It’s snowing!” and then laugh when everybody turned around to look out the window.
Maybe as a way of holding our attention, or at least trying to since it was really futile, the art teacher gave us an extra challenge: draw the setup of bottles and boxes she’d put at the front of the room using chiaroscuro but reverse the values: make everything dark light and everything light dark. My effort was lousier than usual.
My next class was English, and I don’t think my English teacher had anything specific planned for that day because she told us to write about anything, a minimum of five hundred words. So I started writing about chiaroscuro, its nature, the use of natural light, chiaroscuro in still life painting and realistic painting. And then it started snowing. Yeah, that same kid in the back yelled out, “It’s snowing!” and this time he was right: just small flakes, but thick enough and it was cold enough that snow started to accumulate in white patches on the ground. It was unlikely we were going to be let out early but it was still snow. I kept working on my essay, trying desperately, per the teacher’s instructions, to stick to the traditional five-part structure: introductory paragraph, three developing paragraphs, and a conclusion, but I started to ramble. How much can you say about light and shadow? Well, a lot, probably, but I was running out of things I could say and I started writing about how you can use chiaroscuro to sharpen your pencil, brushing the edge of the lead against the paper, and then I concluded with a completely off-topic statement that snow fogs the brain and makes it impossible to concentrate and even though I was mixing my weather metaphors, uh, snow. I believe “uh” got me right up to four-hundred and ninety-nine words.
Even though I fell short I got an A on the essay. I was always a pretty good English student.