Chiaroscuro (form ital. Chiaro = light, scuro=dark) is one of four painting concepts from the Italian renaissance. The other three are: sfumato (rendition of blurred edges around the contour), unione (gradual transition of light and shadow areas), and cangiante (rendering shadows by changing color). Two of the first artists working in this method was Massacio (1401 – 1428) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519). It became later more known in association with later artist as Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) and Rembrandt (1606 – 1669)
The main intention of Chiaroscuro is the distribution of light and dark values that indicate light and shadow and to render forms by shading on a two dimensional plane. By that the illusion of three dimensional forms are created. On the other hand chiaroscuro are used also for monochrome paintings that consists of tonal value gradations across the picture.
To the extreme the painting consists out of vast dark areas supporting the light areas. But here it need to be differentiated from tenebrism: it builds on stark contrast and vast areas in black to enforce the illumination of certain forms in a dramatic effect. In chiaroscuro the dark areas are contributing to the positive forms, in tenebrism the dark/black area is just like that. Some works are combining both elements.
Gerard van Honthorst (1592 – 1665)
– ‘De Koppelaarster (The Matchmaker)’, 1625
Oil on canvas (71 x 104 cm)
[Online image] Utrecht: Centraal Museum. Available from: http://centraalmuseum.nl/ontdekken/object/?img_only=1#o:7069 [accessed 03 March 2016]
=> an interior scene in candle light with dramatic effect. The backs of the middle person in dark/shadow emphasises the light effect on the woman. The eye focused on the section with the boldest contrast of extreme tonal values
Caravaggio (1571 – 1610)
– ‘The Denial of Saint Peter‘, 1610
Oil on canvas (94 x 125.4 cm)
[Online image] New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available from:
http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437986 [accessed 03 March 2016]
=> chiaroscuro application to create the illusion of three dimensional bodies with selective light usage
Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640)
– ‘Samson and Delilah’, 1609-1610
Oil on wood (185 x 205 cm)
[Online image] London: The National Gallery. Available from: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/peter-paul-rubens-samson-and-delilah [accessed 03 March 2016]
=> here chiaroscuro is applied to render more dramatically the body of Samson
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 -1797)
– ‘A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery‘, 1766
Oil on canvas ( ? )
[Online image] Derby Museum. Available from: http://www.derbymuseums.org/joseph-wright-gallery/ [accessed 03 March 2016]
=> another interior scene in candle light. Same concept of as done by Gerard van Honthorst (back of person the middle in dark shadow) pushing the eye focus on the middle section with the two children.
Jacob Collins (b. 1964)
– ‘Beer and Oysters II‘, 2007
Oil on Canvas (12″x 20″)
[Online image] Available from: http://jacobcollins.format.com/still-life#12 [accessed 03 March 2016]
=> an today’s artists in the method of the masters. Combined chiaroscuro and tenebrism.
Georg Baselitz (b. 1938)
-‘ Woodcut’, 1967
[Online image] Available from: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/59579?locale=en [accessed 04 March 2016]
=> in the traditional manner of using light (white) and dark (black) for light and shadow in a simplified form as it is common for woodcuts.
- One need to to differentiate between chiaroscuro and tenebrism. The latter involving vast areas in black (shadow) for more dramatic effect (negative space), but without contributing to the rendering of the positive forms.
- With chiaroscuro a form becomes more believable and more realistic through using tonal value scale from light to dark to depict the effect of light an shadow in the objects.
- Bold contrast of light and dark close to each other (edge) leads the eye to focus on.
- In former times candlelight was the main and single light in interiors. By that it was more crucial to depict forms carefully with chiaroscuro to avoid limited tonal range and flat visual effect.
- Oxford Art Online: Chiaroscuro, Carvaggio etc.