The Martchmaker by Gerrit Von Honthorst,


Color provided the key to light and shade in painting, in such a way that chiaroscuro should  be a function of color, not a part of design in the academic manner.”     Roger de Piles, 1655, “Dialogue sur le coloris”


The French word for the Italian noun “chiaroscuro” is clair-obscur. Simply, Chiaroscuro means light:dark or the contrast of light and shadow. Since the solidity of form is detected in the presence of light, the use of chiaroscuro is what painters use to create the illusion of 3-dimensional form. Without difference in shadow and light, a form would look flat. This effect of flatness comprises many great works of modern art; however, for realism, it is necessary to use chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and dark. The pioneers of chiaroscuro go way back to the Renaissance. They include Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. For the later Baroque and Mannerist periods, Caravaggio and Rembrandt were pioneers.

 One finds chiaroscuro in the oil paintings of daVinci, Raphael, and Rembrandt; however, this style is used in other media , too. Woodcut prints using several blocks each in a different tone would produce an image with chiaroscuro in the final print. Artists owe this discovery  to a German: Hans Burgknair in 1508. Chiaroscuro is also created in drawings by using colored papers where light is depicted by white gouache and the dark shadows are depicted by various dark inks. To find examples of chiaroscuro in the 18th and 19th century, see works of Fragonard, specifically “The Swing”,Watteau, and Goya,specifically “Nude Maja at the Prado”.

When painters use lights and the dark contrasts, chiaroscuro shares characteristics with another technique: tenebrism, another Italian word meaning ” murky” and used often in Mannerist paintings. Both chiaroscuro and tenebrism use the contrast of light and dark in painting and drawing. The difference lies in how chiaroscuro is a painterly term describing  how painters create the illusion of 3-dimensionality while tenebrism describes a compositional technique . When artists use tenebrism, they may paint some areas very dark for the purpose of allowing one or two areas on the canvas to appear strongly filled with light. The overall effect is very dramatic.

But unlike chiaroscuro, there is no modelling of a form to make the illusion of 3-dimensionality. Also, tenebrism connotes something negative while chiaroscuro is positive because it reveals a positive form. Another painterly word to include here is sfumato.  DaVinci was the pioneer of using sfumato. When light and dark meet, sharp lines and contours appear. DaVinci wanted to soften these sharp lines created by the contrast of light and dark so he blended the borders “in the manner of smoke”.  Sfumato means  “vanished gradually like smoke”. To make sfumato, da Vinci used several translucent glazes over each other to create a gradual spectrum from light and dark. Giorgione and Correggio also employed sfumato to soften the edges.

Chiaroscuro, as previously mentioned, is used in paintings , drawings, and prints.It is also used in modern photography . In 1915, Cecil B.DeMille coined a new phrase  while filming “The Warrens of Virginia”. The phrase  which refers to dark and light contrast in photography is “Rembrandt lighting”.  The story goes as such: de Mille was using a spotlight to create shadows on an actor, but Sam Goldwyn didn’t like that only half of the actor’s face was in light. Sam thought his patrons would only pay ½ price for the show. So DeMille eagerly quipped by describing the half-light as “Rembrandt lighting”. Sam bought the explanation and hoped his patrons would pay double!  Rembrandt lighting is used primarily in photography. One light  and a reflector or two lights are pointed towards a model. The effect creates a very natural looking image of the model. This was also popular because there was little need for lots of camera equipment to create the naturalness of the image. A distinguishing mark of Rembrandt lighting is the appearance of the illuminated triangle underneath the eye of the subject on the less illuminated side of the face of the model. This lighting lights up one side of the face while leaving the other side in shadow. Part of this shadowy area includes the geometric triangle which is no wider than the eye and no longer than the nose.

Photograph of John Lennon (in Rembrandt lighting)

To conclude, oil painting is the best medium for using chiaroscuro. The pigment can be suspended in oils to make glazes that can be layered to create sfumato effects of dark and light. Tempera and egg emulsions are too opaque to create the translucency needed for blending, shading, and layered glazing. Put light glazes on top of dark tones and it is possible to create that memorable  “figure emerging from the darkness”.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.