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Updated on April 25, 2014
A beautiful example of Chiaroscuro
A beautiful example of Chiaroscuro | Source

What is Chiaroscuro?

A literal translation of this Italian word 'chiaroscuro' is light, dark.

Strong contrasts between light and are used to create dramatic effect, mystery or atmosphere when observed by an audience.

A wonderful example is in this picture 'A&P Coffee, Santa Clause', by Nickolas Muray (1892-1965). What an incredible painting. Here chiaroscuro is used to create a feeling of mystery, and excitement. Playing into the hands of the believers and non believers in Father Christmas alike, could it be? maybe it isn't? The painting make me want to know more, 'Where is the light emanating from; the magical subject or is magic surrounding the subject? Muray generates a wealth of evocative, child like fantasies and emotions simply by a masterly use of light and dark. For me, without this lighting the image would be devoid of these imaginings.

For the purists, chiaroscuro as a term is used as a painting, artwork technique, where the subject is defined by light and dark. A dark background is not generally classed as part of the chiaroscuro, but is separate. Wittingly or unwittingly, chiaroscuro is a device used in many forms of visual art, photography, theatre, screenplay and so I feel not is no longer exclusive to painting and drawing.

Chiaroscuro in a Roman Mosaic

A Roman mosaic. Sicily
A Roman mosaic. Sicily | Source

Who used Chiaroscuro?

Pretty much every form of visual media uses Chiaroscuro. Now, in the 21st century, with dramatic lighting effects available to us all, even our homes can be transformed by a carefully positioned spot light or window.

Traditionally, it is a term usually applied to artists, and was truly perfected by the 'Old Masters', one or two like Rembrandt and Caravaggio became renown for their inspired use of light and dark in their paintings. These artists became fascinated by the way light, particularly and often from an unseen source, cast shadows, enabling them to bring out and highlight the subject of the artwork in stark relief.

The technique of using light for highlighting as body colour can be traced to art of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and is evident in some mosaics, where light was used to create a three dimensional appearance in a flat surface, work of art or interior d├ęcor. The image chosen here, of the Mosaic in Sicily, clearly illustrates an unbelievably sensitive observation of light and its use to enhance the dimensional form of the animal.

The application of chiaroscuro as a device in art wasn't really classified until the Renaissance (literally meaning 'to be reborn') during the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries.

More recently, theatre companies, film and television studios use chiaroscuro intuitively, as do exhibitions, installations, interior and architectural designers and of course photographers. Chiaroscuro has merged seamlessly and without ceremony into our everyday lives.

The Potato Eaters - Vincent Van Gogh


Famous Paintings demonstrating the use of Chairoscuro.

I have chose three paintings by three different artists. These artists use chiaroscuro. Each masterful artist has their own unique and distinctive style and yet all nod their heads to this ingenious device.

'The Potato Eaters'. This is one of my very favourite paintings by Van Gogh. The artist uses a visible source of what appears to an oil lamp, to pick out and highlight the individual faces characters and their work worn features. He manages to convey poverty in the grim bare, dimmed and darkened background, without which, even though technically not part of the chiaroscuro, the emphasis on the figures would be negated . Van Gogh's use of the contrast between light and dark creates atmosphere and almost a feeling of a bare existence wrest only from the very earth, the fruits of which they are consuming. Genius and intuitive.

Head of an Old Man in a Cap - Rembrandt


The greatest master of chiaroscuro in my humble opinion is Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. My particular favourites, are 'The Storm on the Sea of Galilea' in which Rembrandt uses light and dark to generate a huge flux of energy and power to whip up the sea. The light focuses the mind to a detail of the painting where human panic and endeavour ensues as the brutal relentless battle with nature and the waves takes place. Yet within the same painting, and only a few inches apart, Rembrandt uses dark to juxtapose the brilliant squall with a sense of calm and almost serenity on the face of one voyager.

Other incredible works of art, forming part of Rembrandt's collection, in which he further displays his use of this technique, includes the Money Changers and the Flayed Ox. Chiaroscuro by the hand of another masterly, genius artist.


Georges de La Tour (1593 - 1652), was slightly earlier but was still pretty much a contemporary of Rembrandt. It is understandable that he also used chiaroscuro, as its use was almost at its height during this period, but his style and technique was quite different.

His images were gentle, with clean understated lines, the chiaroscuro was unambiguous and simple, he portrayed serenity and calmness, almost using flat planes of light and dark to create as sense of tranquility, even tasks were soothed to quietness under his brushstroke-less style . Typical, are the paintings of 'St Jean-Baptiste dans le Desert' above, and 'Joseph the Carpenter' which hangs in the Louvre, the most beautiful being his 'Magdalen with the Smoking Flame'.

Chiaroscuro in theatre 'War horse'
Chiaroscuro in theatre 'War horse' | Source

Chiaroscuro in Modern Media and Environments

I thought it might be fun to look at a couple modern images of chiaroscuro, images I suspect have been put together more intuitively, without actual acknowledgement of its use as a deliberate known historical artistic device. Yet the artists have manage to recreate the deliberacy of the old masters in a modern setting.

Stage and theatre are probably the most well versed of the arts in current day use of lighting to create dramatic effect, but would they consider it to be chiaroscuro? I suspect not. The image here shows beautiful use of light falling on the figure in a dramatic moment in the stage production of 'War Horse'. With out doubt, in my mind this is a reference to the of the use of light and dark to create atmosphere and evoke emotion.

Below, designers Nesma and Partners created this truly beautiful auditorium interior wall, which is undoubtedly a work of art, using chiaroscuro in a very modern setting, not so much to emphasise a subject, but more to use the hidden light and the shapes its reflections and shadows create as the actual subject. The ingenious use of light and dark.


Chiaroscuro as a Legacy

Artists through the ages have held light as one of the holy grail's of painting and drawing, whether an attempt to capture the sunlight dappling through trees or reflecting off water, light presents as a contrast to dark.

In actual fact we are surrounded by chiaroscuro, however it will always mainly be attributed to the art world and is the legacy of the old masters and their extraordinary dogged persuit of light and darkness.


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