What is Chiaroscuro? Definition and Its Intriguing History In Art

what is chiaroscuro?

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If your drawings or paintings feel flat and lifeless, there are classic techniques ready to help you out. What is chiaroscuro, and can it breathe new life into your work?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Chiaroscuro is a centuries-old technique that helps artists create dynamic and atmospheric art. Below you’ll learn the technique’s history, study visual examples, then see a tutorial on getting started.

What is the Definition of Chiaroscuro?

Chiaroscuro is a technique with dramatic washes of light and shadows to make a scene or subject pop out. If you ever told spooky flashlight stories under the blanket as a kid, you’ll already know why chiaroscuro withstands the test of time.

The term chiaroscuro is a combination of ‘chiaro’ and ‘scuro’ – the Italian words for dark and light, respectively.

what is the definition of chiaroscuro?

Now that you know the chiaroscuro definition, let’s get pronunciation out of the way – chiaroscuro is ‘kee-arh-ah-skew-rowh’.

Many modern artists use this technique – it appears in oil paintings, ink drawings, and pencil sketches, amongst other mediums.

Why is the Term Chiaroscuro Significant?

This technique is significant for how powerfully it transforms a scene. Heavy shadows and dark backgrounds immediately grab a viewer’s attention in two meaningful ways.

The first way is creating a sense of depth in a painting, like you could step through it yourself. The dramatic effect is prime for creating three-dimensional volume.

why is the term chiaroscuro significant?

The second way is establishing a rich and evocative mood that draws you into the illustration’s setting. Many artists love using chiaroscuro to create drama.

In fact, filmmakers regularly use chiaroscuro in their lighting style! Famous films like The Godfather and Sin City constantly use the chiaroscuro technique.

What Art Styles Are Like Chiaroscuro?

This style looks a little similar to a few other classical techniques like sfumato and tenebrism. While artists often mix these styles, they’re very different.

Tenebrism is very similar to the chiaroscuro style in how it uses dramatic light and dark areas. It’s one of the earlier shading techniques for creating intense contrast. The critical difference is how much dark it uses – tenebrism will have most of an illustration drenched in shadow.

what art styles are like chiaroscuro?
(Image Source)

Sfumato is a technique where the artist softens transitions between colors. It’s a valuable technique that can simulate how the human eye sharpens or blurs subjects out of focus.

What are the Five Different Elements of Chiaroscuro?

Understanding how to apply the chiaroscuro technique starts with breaking it into parts. There are five parts to this technique, and all of them will teach you the basics of value.

  1. Highlights: The sharp points of light that are closest to the light source.
  2. Halftones: The softer transition between a highlight and the beginning of a deep shadow.
  3. Core shadows: The shadowed surfaces where the form turns away from the light source. Core shadows are very prominent in chiaroscuro.
  4. Cast Shadows: The shadows falling upon the surrounding environment.
  5. Reflected Light: The light that bounces back onto the subject from the environment. Reflected light into the shadow is still darker than the darkest halftones

what are the five different elements of chiaroscuro?

The History of Chiaroscuro

While there isn’t a specific date when the term chiaroscuro originated, this technique became well-known in the 1500’s. However, some ancient art used it all the way back during Roman rule.

This light and dark technique dominated several art movements during the Italian Renaissance, such as the baroque era, mannerism, and counter-mannerism. These movements embraced the heavy shadows and intense light in slightly different ways.

the history of chiaroscuro
The Elevation of the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens

For example, the baroque period was often brighter and softer (above), while mannerisms leaned toward darker shades (below).

chiaroscuro art
Autumn by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

The chiaroscuro technique also gained traction thanks to the brilliance of several Renaissance artists. Caravaggio, da Vinci, and Rembrandt are some of the best-known artists who regularly used it.

Who Invented Chiaroscuro?

The jury is still out among historians, but some believe Leonardo da Vinci invented it. Chiaroscuro emerged in many of his oil paintings and is one of the earliest examples in the Renaissance era.

Other historians believe Lucas Cranach, The Elder, invented chiaroscuro for woodcut techniques.

What are Famous Examples of Chiaroscuro?

There are more chiaroscuro artists than you can shake a stick at. To keep things simple, let’s look at a few famous examples to help you spot this brilliant technique.

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness

saint john of the wilderness

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Caravaggio is a brilliant example of the chiaroscuro style in setting a mood and fleshing out a subject. The focus of this chiaroscuro painting is Saint John, a prophet from the Bible, in a moment of intense thought.

The contrast between the bright subject, the vivid cloak, and the dark background is masterful. This painting also shows how chiaroscuro doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing in contrast. There are still a few heavy shadows on the torso to create depth along Saint John’s bare form.

Lady With an Ermine

lady with the ermine

Another famous example of chiaroscuro is Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady With an Ermine (made with oil paint on wood). This Renaissance painting is stately and refined yet has a striking punch that chiaroscuro is especially good at creating.

Similar to the first example, there’s a great contrast between the bright woman, her pale pet, and the background. They seem to peel out of the shadows, immediately drawing the viewer’s gaze and not letting go.

There’s an especially heavy contrast beneath her arm and the side of her head, too. While this portrait art isn’t photorealistic, she and the ermine still feel three-dimensional enough to touch.

The Night Watch

the night watch

Last but not least, we have Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to show just how intense a chiaroscuro painting can be. This painting lives up to its name by stressing the ‘night’ part of ‘night watch’.

In the classic chiaroscuro style, there’s significant contrast between light and dark areas – the lighter subjects in the foreground and the murky background, specifically. Like someone walking through the night, this painting provides bold contrasts affecting the viewer’s sense of mystery or unease.

There’s also skillful use of contrast between the dark and light clothes of the two central characters. The viewer’s eyes are encouraged to travel between each person in turn, seeing individuals and building a story piece-by-piece.

How Can I Paint With the Chiaroscuro Technique?

Getting started with the chiaroscuro technique is easy with everyday objects and your medium of choice. You can use oil paint, pencil, colored paper – your choice.

Step 1: Get a Cardboard Box to Set the Scene

To make setting your scene easier, dig around for a cardboard box to place items you’d like to draw or paint. This box will help you set up a scene with the rest of your equipment.

Step 2: A Lamp for Lighting

Natural light isn’t always easy to get ahold of. A small desk lamp provides good lighting, especially if it can be adjusted.

Pushing your lamp closer will create harsh light for a stark contrast. Pulling it away will create soft light for more serene scenes. If you don’t have an adjustable lamp, you can use a flashlight or prop up your cellphone with the flashlight turned on.

If you don’t have a well-lit model with a single light source, you’ll miss out on strong contrasts.

a lamp fro lighting

Step 3: Get a Black Sheet of Paper

To give you a reliable reference for light and dark contrast, tape a black sheet of paper inside the box. A little tape, glue, or some staples will do fine here.

You can also use spare black paper (or brown-tinted paper) to practice quick chiaroscuro drawings. Lighter layers will pop against it, such as white gouache, light chalk, or pastels. Dry medium is also great for creating hatched shadows.

black sheet of paper

Step 4: Find a Few Simple Subjects to Start With

While you can make a chiaroscuro work of art from anything, simple subjects are best for beginners. These help you capture simple light and shadow without fussing too much about fine detail (yet!).

  • A pale ball
  • A small vase
  • A white skull
  • A bowl of fruit, like apples or grapes
  • A coffee mug

a bowl of fruit

Step 5: Practice, Practice, Practice

Now it’s a matter of picking your medium of choice and practicing. As you get comfortable shadow painting, you can move from a still life to a self-portrait or original drawing.

If you’re still struggling with capturing light and shadow, this free mini course will help you further develop your chiaroscuro drawings.

Chiaroscuro is a Classic and Dynamic Technique

The term chiaroscuro is how you take the basics of everyday life and turn it into something stylish and unforgettable. Not only will this technique enhance your work, it could inspire you to create techniques of your own!

If you need even more help practicing, check out Drawing Light & Shade: Understanding Chiaroscuro (The Art of Drawing) by Giovani Sarvani

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