Chiaroscuro [kee-ahr-uh-skyoor-oh] (Italian: ‘light-dark’) in art is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. Chiaroscuro is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for using contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects such as the human body. Similar effects in the lighting of cinema and photography are also often called chiaroscuro.

Further related specialized uses of the term include chiaroscuro woodcut, for coloured woodcuts printed with different blocks, each using a different coloured ink; and chiaroscuro drawing for drawings on coloured paper with drawing in a dark medium and white highlighting.

Chiaroscuro originated during the Renaissance as drawing on colored paper, where the artist worked from the paper’s base tone towards light using white gouache (opaque watercolor), and towards dark using ink. These in turn drew on traditions in illuminated manuscripts, going back to late Roman Imperial manuscripts on purple-dyed vellum (mammal skin parchment). Such works used to be called ‘chiaroscuro drawings,’ but are more often described in modern museum terminology by such formulae as ‘pen on prepared paper, heightened with white gouache.’ Chiaroscuro woodcuts began as imitations of this technique. When discussing Italian art, the term is sometimes used to mean painted images in monochrome or two colors, more generally known in English by the French equivalent, ‘grisaille.’ The term early broadened in meaning to cover all strong contrasts in illumination between light and dark areas in art, which is now the primary meaning.

The more technical use of the term is the effect of light modelling in painting, drawing or printmaking, where three-dimensional volume is suggested by the value gradation of color and the analytical division of light and shadow shapes — often called ‘shading.’ The invention of these effects in the West, ‘skiagraphia’ (Ancient Greek: ‘shadow-painting’) was traditionally ascribed to the famous Athenian painter of the 5th century BCE, Apollodoros. Although virtually no Ancient Greek painting survives, their understanding of the effect of light modelling can still be seen in the late 4th century BCE mosaics of Pella, Macedonia, in particular the ‘Deer Hunt, in the House of the Abduction of Helen.’

They also survived in rather crude standardized form in Byzantine art and were refined again in the Middle Ages to become standard by the early fifteenth-century in painting and manuscript illumination in Italy and Flanders, and then spread to all Western art. Chiaroscuro modelling is now taken for granted, but had some opponents. English portrait miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard cautioned in his treatise on painting against all but the minimal use we see in his works, reflecting the views of his patron Queen Elizabeth I of England: ‘seeing that best to show oneself needeth no shadow of place but rather the open light… Her Majesty… chose her place to sit for that purpose in the open alley of a goodly garden, where no tree was near, nor any shadow at all…’

In drawings and prints, modelling chiaroscuro is often achieved by the use of hatching, or shading by parallel lines. Washes, stipple or dotting effects, and ‘surface tone’ in printmaking are other techniques. Chiaroscuro woodcuts are old master prints in woodcut using two or more blocks printed in different colors; they do not necessarily feature strong contrasts of light and dark. According to one definition of the term, they were first invented by Lucas Cranach in Germany in 1507, and first made in Italy by Ugo da Carpi before 1516. In Germany the technique peaked around 1520, but it was used in Italy throughout the sixteenth century. Later artists like Goltzius sometimes made use of it. In some German two-block prints, the keyblock (or ‘line block’) was printed in black and the tone block or blocks had flat areas of color.

Manuscript illumination was, as in many areas, especially experimental in attempting ambitious lighting effects, as the results were not for public display. The development of compositional chiaroscuro received a considerable impetus in Northern Europe from the vision of the Nativity of Jesus of Saint Bridget of Sweden, a very popular mystic. She described the infant Jesus as emitting light himself; depictions increasingly reduced other light sources in the scene to emphasize this effect, and the Nativity remained very commonly treated with chiaroscuro through to the Baroque. Hugo van der Goes and his followers painted many scenes lit only by candle, or the divine light from the infant Christ. As with some later painters, in their hands the effect was of stillness and calm rather than the drama of the Baroque.

Strong chiaroscuro became a popular effect during the sixteenth century, in Mannerism (a style of the high renaissance) and in Baroque art. Divine light continued to illuminate, often rather inadequately, the compositions of Tintoretto, Veronese and their many followers. Dark subjects dramatically lit by a shaft of light from a single constricted and often unseen source was a compositional device developed by Ugo da Carpi (c. 1455-c. 1523), Giovanni Baglione (1566–1643) and Caravaggio (1573–1610), the last of whom was crucial in developing the style of ‘tenebrism,’ where dramatic chiaroscuro becomes a dominant stylistic device.

Tenebrism was especially practised in Spain and the Spanish-ruled Kingdom of Naples, by Jusepe de Ribera and his followers. Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), a German artist living in Rome, produced several night scenes lit mainly by fire, and sometimes moonlight. Unlike Caravaggio’s, his dark areas contain very subtle detail and interest. The influences of Caravaggio and Elsheimer were strong on Peter Paul Rubens, who exploited their respective approaches to tenebrosity for dramatic effect in paintings such as ‘The Raising of the Cross’ (1610–1611).

A particular genre that developed was the nocturnal scene lit by candlelight, which looked back to earlier northern artists like Geertgen tot Sint Jans and more immediately to the innovations of Caravaggio and Elsheimer. This theme played out with many artists from the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) in the first few decades of the 17th century, where it became associated with the Utrecht Caravaggisti like Gerrit van Honthorst and Dirck van Baburen, and with Flemish Baroque painters such as Jacob Jordaens. Rembrandt’s early works from the 1620s also adopted the single-candle light source. The nocturnal candle-lit scene re-emerged in the Dutch Republic in the mid 17th century on a smaller scale in the works of fijnschilders (Dutch Golden Age painters) such as Gerrit Dou and Gottfried Schalken.

Rembrandt’s interest in effects of darkness shifted in his mature works. He relied less on the sharp contrasts of light and dark that marked the Italian influences of the earlier generation, a factor found in his mid-17th century etchings. In that medium he shared many similarities with his contemporary in Italy, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, whose work in printmaking led him to invent the monotype (a type of printmaking made by drawing or painting on a smooth, non-absorbent surface).

Outside the Low Countries, artists such as Georges de La Tour and Trophime Bigot in France and Joseph Wright of Derby in England, carried on with such strong, but graduated, candlelight chiaroscuro. Watteau used a gentle chiaroscuro in the leafy backgrounds of his fêtes galantes (the celebrated pursuits of the idle, French aristocrats in the 18th century), and this was continued in pictures by many French artists, notably Fragonard. At the end of the century Fuseli and others used a heavier chiaroscuro for romantic effect, as did Delacroix and others in the nineteenth century.

The French use of the term, ‘clair-obscur,’ was introduced by the seventeenth century art-critic Roger de Piles in the course of a famous argument (‘Débat sur le coloris’) on the relative merits of drawing and color in painting (his ‘Dialogues sur le coloris,’ 1673 was a key contribution to the Débat). In English, the Italian term has been used since at least the late 17th century. The term is less often used to describe works from 20th century or later, although the Expressionist and other modern movements make great use of the effect. Especially since the modern rise in the reputation of Caravaggio. As the Tate puts it: ‘Chiaroscuro is generally only remarked upon when it is a particularly prominent feature of the work, usually when the artist is using extreme contrasts of light and shade.’

Classical voice instructors describe the optimal balance of clearness and darkness in the singing voice tone as chiaroscuro: a combination of brightness and ‘ping’ (brilliance and resonance) with warmth and depth i.e. the ‘dark’ colors (natural or manufactured) of the individual timbre (tone). This technique is one of the main arsenals of dramatic singers especially useful in verismo operas (e.g. ‘Tosca,’ ‘Pagliacci’), where it can be used to great effect in recitatives and declamatory passages; it also allows more lyric voices to safely survive the strain of bread-and-butter lyrico-spinto roles such as Mario (‘Tosca’).

Chiaroscuro is also used in cinematography to indicate extreme low-key and high-contrast lighting to create distinct areas of light and darkness in films, especially in black and white films. Classic examples are ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1920), ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1939), ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’ (1941) and the black and white scenes in Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979).

In photography, chiaroscuro is often altered with the use of ‘Rembrandt lighting.’ In more highly-developed photographic processes, this technique may also be termed ‘ambient/natural lighting,’ although when done so for the effect, the look is artificial and not generally documentary in nature. In particular, Bill Henson along with others, such as W. Eugene Smith, are considered modern masters of chiaroscuro in documentary photography.

Perhaps the most direct personification of the intent of chiaroscuro in filmmaking, though, would be Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon.’ When informed that no lens currently had a wide enough aperture to shoot a costume drama set in grand palaces using only candlelight, Kubrick bought and retrofitted a special lens for these purposes: a modified Mitchell BNC camera and a Zeiss lens manufactured for the rigors of space photography. The naturally unaugmented lighting situations in the film exemplified low-key, natural lighting in filmwork at its most extreme outside of the Eastern European/Soviet filmmaking tradition (itself exemplified by the harsh low-key lighting style employed by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein).

Sven Nykvist, the longtime collaborator of Ingmar Bergman, also informed much of his photography with chiaroscuro realism, as well as Gregg Toland, who influenced such cinematographers as László Kovács, Vilmos Zsigmond, and Vittorio Storaro with his use of deep and selective focus augmented with strong horizon-level key lighting penetrating through windows and doorways. Much of the celebrated film noir tradition relies on techniques Toland perfected in the early thirties that are related to chiaroscuro (though high-key lighting, stage lighting, frontal lighting, and other effects are interspersed in ways that diminish the chiaroscuro claim).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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