What is Chiaroscuro in Art? Definition, Tips, and Examples

What is Chiaroscuro in Art? 

Chiaroscuro is an artistic technique that employs shadows and a single light source to create depth and drama (Source). The word stems from the Italian word ‘chiaro’, meaning bright or clear, and ‘oscuro’, which translates to dark or obscure.

The focus of chiaroscuro is on the contrast of light and dark to create a strong atmospheric effect. Although it has its roots in painting and is usually associated with oil paintings of the Renaissance, it has also expanded to other disciplines like photography and film It is still used widely by artists today to create depth, drama, and distinction in their work.

How is Chiaroscuro Used in Art?

The chiaroscuro technique is used in art to create dramatic and striking effects. This is done through the contrast of light and dark on the canvas, starting with darker tones underneath, over the base of the canvas.

Lighter or medium tones are then inscribed over top of the deeper shadow, while the highlights – sometimes white gouache or chalk if a sketch – is added over the top (Source). Thus, the gradient of color within chiaroscuro paintings and drawings ranges all the way from darkest black to brilliant white.

This creates depth on the flat surface on the canvas and allows the artist to suggest three-dimensional space. In chiaroscuro film and photography, the contrast of light and dark is often associated with film noir, where it is used to create suspense and mystery, as only certain parts of the shot or scene can be seen in brilliant light, against a dark or black background.

What is the Purpose of Chiaroscuro in Art?

Chiaroscuro is used in art to create a dramatic effect, suggesting high emotion within a scene. It can be used to draw the viewer’s attention to certain objects within a scene by shining light directly on them.

It also helps to define the space within the painting, by adding depth to the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. By highlighting figures and objects with defined light and shadow, artists can create convincing depictions of real life where the subjects appear as solid forms.

Artists could also address new subjects with chiaroscuro and explore exciting concepts like psychological complexity, nightmares, intimacy, and the metaphorical battle of light and darkness.  In the twentieth century, photographers and filmmakers picked up on the usefulness of chiaroscuro effects and adopted the technique.

In these areas, it is used to heighten the suspense and intensity of a scene. It can be used to increase the visual allure of a film or photograph, and also ties the photographer or filmmaker into a long tradition of the chiaroscuro technique.

Who Invented Chiaroscuro? 

Although this method of painting with light and shadow became popular and is most well known, during the Renaissance and Baroque eras, it actually dates back as far as the 5th Century. In Ancient Greece, a painter named Apollodorus Skiagraphos used cross-hatched shading to suggest depth in the third dimension.

Unfortunately, none of his sketches survived, but his technique inspired a future generation of artists to experiment further with shadow and depth in their own work. It was developed into oil painting during the Renaissance and developed across Europe throughout the Baroque period.

Tips to Use Chiaroscuro in Your Own Art:

  • Use oil paint as your medium for best layering and blending colours. You will also need a few different brushes, a canvas or piece of paper to draw or paint on.
  • Pick a still life subject, which is most traditionally used in chiaroscuro painting. This is usually a group of everyday objects and could include food, flowers or books. It could also be a portrait of someone you know.
  • Perfect your lighting, as this is the key feature of chiaroscuro. The technique uses a single source of light, so focus on this when setting your scene. You might use a lamp, a window with natural light, or a torch focused on the most important objects within the scene you want to capture.
  • It may be useful to create a light box out of a cardboard box, with the inside painted black. You can place this next to a window to allow the light to shine through a hole in one side, and view the scene, set up inside the box, through one open side.
  • Think like a photographer: chiaroscuro aims to achieve photo-realism, so it can be useful to think of these techniques or even take a photo of your scene before you start painting.
  • Editing your photo can also help – turn up the contrast until you achieve the level of light and dark contrast you want in your finished painting.

Famous Artists Who Used Chiaroscuro

There are many famous artists who use chiaroscuro in their art, both from art history and modern times. A few of the most well-known and celebrated for their use of chiaroscuro in the painting are: 

  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
  • Jacopo Tintoretto
  • Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
  • Peter Paul Rubens
  • Johannes Vermeer
  • Francisco Goya
  • Digeo Velàzquez
  • Gerhard Richter

Does the Mona Lisa Use Chiaroscuro? 

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the most well-known and widely celebrated examples of chiaroscuro in the world. In fact, da Vinci is often credited with the invention of the chiaroscuro technique because of its use in this painting, even though he simply adapted an older technique from Ancient Greece.

However, in Mona Lisa, the chiaroscuro technique is at its finest, as seen in the direct light falling on her face to illuminate her famous expression (Source). The contrast comes from the lower part of the painting, in the shadow that falls across her hands, dress, and lap.

The use of chiaroscuro in this painting is one of the reasons why it is so intriguing and has maintained such a celebrated and famous status throughout the centuries. Da Vinci truly changed the way that chiaroscuro was used and understood, and paved the way for future artists like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, during the Baroque era, who took chiaroscuro to its fullest extent. 

mona lisa

Conclusion

Chiaroscuro in art is an age-old, widely popular, and effective artistic technique contrasting light and dark. Although thought to have been pioneered by Leonardo da Vinci during the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century, it in fact dates back to Ancient Greece, where shading was used by an artist to create depth.

Chiaroscuro can be used in various art mediums, from oil painting to drawing, to photography and film. The focus, however, is always on the lighting. This comes from a single source, and is in high contrast, creating stark highlights and deep shadows.

The effect of chiaroscuro is a dramatic one, hence its popularity for centuries in all types of art forms. It can even be created at home if you have the right materials and techniques to try it yourself.

By studying the masters such as da Vinci, Caravaggio, Rubens, and Rembrandt, and setting up a scene that will best display the techniques of chiaroscuro, you can achieve the same effect as these famous artists from history.

In film and photography, too, chiaroscuro is used to give off a dramatic effect, to create suspense for the viewer, or to place particular attention on an object within the scene- a gun, perhaps, or a vase of flowers.

It is commonly associated with film noir but is used by filmmakers of all genres and eras to add visual emphasis to a scene. 

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