No Substance Without Shadow – The Art of Architectural Mouldings

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Chiaroscuro is an Italian term coined by artists and art historians to describe the use of strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects. So, what has chiaroscuro got to do with architectural joinery and mouldings? Everything, because the mouldings on door panels, architraves, skirting boards, dado rails and the like create these very same contrasts and effects. In doing so they make a considerable impact on the look, mood and character of a room.

A Short History of Chiaroscuro

The first artist to use light and shade as a device for modelling volume was Apollodorus. Plutarch writes that around 408BC he “first established the method of representing appearances” and thereby created the earliest recorded illusionist paintings.

Artists were slow to develop the technique. David Hockney, in his recently published book “A History of Pictures” notes that Giotto used light and shade around 1310, but crudely. Just over a century later Massacio did the same, but in a more naturalistic way. Then Van Eyck painted his Ghent Altarpiece between 1425 and 1429 and everything changed. Depicting Adam with “shadows that are extremely rich” and a naturalism which Hockney finds “astonishing”, it was a ground-breaking achievement.

As the renaissance gathered pace artists increasingly used light and shadow to create a sense of substance, volume, depth and drama. This approach is evident in the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, and the technique reached its fullest expression in the works of Caravaggio at the close of the sixteenth century. Rembrandt continued in the same vein, with an approach which was lighter and more impressionistic. Vermeer was another exponent, and in his works the tonal gradations are more gradual than Caravaggio’s creating images that are far calmer in tone.

For the next two hundred years artists used chiaroscuro to a greater or lesser extent. With the arrival of the Impressionists the emphasis became almost exclusively about light, with shade all but disappearing. Modern art is generally less concerned with the natural depiction of objects and people and subtleties and so and use of tonal variation between light and dark is less of a preoccupation with the very notable exception of cinematography, think ‘film noir’, and photography.

The Limitations of Light

What has this to do with interior design and architecture? Tonal variations between light and shade are as important in architecture as they are in art and for exactly the same reasons of contrast and effect. Lighting companies make great play of this, popular at design events and in design magazines they project a more glamorous trade image than joinery. Architectural joinery tends to be overlooked yet it is equally as important.

When light is projected onto a flat surface, or a shadow cast across it, the resulting contrast helps to define the space. The effect is much more marked and interesting when the surface is bounded, or bisected, by lines. Architectural joinery, in the form of door panels, architraves, skirtings, pictures rails creates raised and recessed areas. These pick out the light and reflect it back, whilst also forming deep and distinctive shadows in contrast. In so doing, architectural mouldings create infinite opportunities to change the look and feel of an interior.

Each of these features is like a brushstroke that draws the eye, shapes the space and plays on the emotions by telling fascinating stories about the rooms and their past inhabitants. Lighting alone, without the drama and character introduced by the intelligent use of architectural joinery, is limited in what it can achieve.

How to Use Door Moulding and Panel Details to Create Mood and Character

Different mouldings on doors, architraves, skirtings and picture rails elicit different visual and emotional effects. Reflected light illuminating raised panel areas, contrasting with areas of shadow, creates an illusion of depth and greater volume.

For example, the wide moulding on this raised and fielded panelled door section features a wide surface area to catch the brightest light and cast the deepest shadow. The door achieves a more substantial appearance suggestive of considerable depth and weight.

Mouldings can be varied to create whatever effect is desired and elicit moods that can range from a gentle harmonious softness to strong solidity and power. Georgian door panelling features deep moulding designs and panel blocks influenced by Roman architecture has an appearance that is understated and bold. If one wants to create an even bolder statement then raised and fielded door panels, with wider mouldings, can be used to elevate the status of the door design. Victorian period mouldings, showing more restrained Grecian and medieval revivalist influences, are typically shallower and therefore create a softer effect.

This means that one can design different mood zones within a property. For instance, a main reception may feature stronger and bolder status mouldings than upper floor bedrooms where a softer and more gentle tone might be preferred.

Examples of How Door Mouldings Create Depth and Mood

The illusion of greater depth in a moulding can be adjusted in two ways.

Firstly, you can change the “tempo” by varying the density of contrasting areas of light and dark. Wide areas of light and dark this is referred to as low tempo. High tempo is where there is rapid changes between bands of light and shadow.

Secondly you can adjust the graduation between light and shadow to increase, or decrease, the degree of contrast.

Mouldings that are wide, deeply raised and have sharp edges will create crisper stronger contrast. Gentler curves create more graduated shading. The moulding in this illustration does both with a sharp overhang, deep narrow recesses (quirks) and gently curved cyma recta.


Top section of Victorian Period Skirting Board VSK0026. Sourced from The Grange, Ashtead, Surrey. Dated 1875

The variation of raised and recessed moulding details can also add different tones to an otherwise single colour painted finish door.

Architectural Detailing is as Important as Lighting

Stylish lighting gets a lot of attention but it is only one side of the equation – much of the effect is created when the light returns from a surface. So the design of light reflecting surfaces is as much of a challenge for interior designers as the lighting source itself. Atkey & Company are experts in all aspects of architectural joinery and can advise on how best to utilise different mouldings and door panel details to create the desired character, mood and sense of period.

Changing Trends in Lighting and Reflective Surfaces

Throughout history we have seen innovations in domestic lighting and changing fashions. Thankfully the contemporary style for modernist bare industrial light bulbs against flat expanses of brutalist architecture may be coming to an end. At last we are seeing a re-emergence of traditional British design with a revival of the taste for period lighting styles such as candlelight, pendant lights, chandeliers and the use of decorative restoration glass lights.

As part of this welcome trend we hope equal attention will be paid to the selection of skirting, architrave, door mouldings and other joinery that responds sympathetically to illumination. It is encouraging to see a return to traditional British artisan craftsmanship and moulding and door designs created on enduring classical architectural principles.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, or are looking for advice on how to incorporate these ideas in any of your projects, please do not hesitate to contact us.