The term ‘Chiaroscuro’ derives from the Italian words ‘chiara’ – light, and ‘oscuro’ – shadow and refers to images that use strong contrasts between light and dark as a key element in composition. The underlying principle is that solidity of form is best achieved by showing the light falling against it. The term is sometimes used to mean painted images in monochrome or two colours, more generally known in English by the French equivalent, ‘grisaille’.
Chiaroscuro is a key element in monochrome drawing, art, photography and cinema, particularly black and white media. It can refer to a range of different styles and techniques from tonal studies of two or more tones, to more dramatic white on black techniques.
It has echoes in the Japanese concept of Notan as an underlying tonal analysis of an image in order to simplify and increase its impact, particularly where this analysis includes one or more mid-tones. But chiaroscuro generally does not refer to study of tone per se (as in the final tonal collage above). It is rather the way that light creates that tonal contrast to give an impression of serenity/stillness or high drama through focusing the attention on specific areas of the scene.
Some of my preparatory chiaroscuro drawing and photography experiments.
Origins and development in drawing and painting
Chiaroscuro is one of the four canonical painting modes of Renaissance art (alongside cangiante, sfumato and unione).
In the Renaissance artists started to model the form through drawing on coloured paper, working from the paper’s base tone toward light using white gouache, and toward dark using ink, bodycolour or watercolour.
In painting it originated in depictions of ‘divine light’, particularly in nativity scenes. Northern Europe painters like Hugo van der Goes and his followers painted nativity scenes lit only by candle or the divine light from the infant Christ, giving an effect of stillness and calm. In sixteenth century Mannerism and Baroque art, artists like Tintoretto and Veronese used strong chiaroscuro for dramatic effect. Artists like Ugo da Carpi (c. 1455–c.1523), Giovanni Baglione (1566–1643) increased the sense of drama through lighting dark subjects with one shaft of light from a single constricted and often unseen source.
Dramatic chiaroscuro was particularly characteristic of the ‘tenebrist’ style of Caravaggio (1571–1610), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) and Peter Paul Rubens. Dramatic lighting from a single candle, a fire or moonlight became a key feature of the interior scenes of Netherlands artists in the 17th century.
Chiaroscuro Still Life
Chiaroscuro became a key feature of Still Life painting to create drama and/or emphasis symbolic meanings.
Chiaroscuro in printmaking
In printmaking chiaroscuro has been used as part of a number of different techniques.
Rembrandt transferred his chiaroscuro style from his paintings to his etchings. He relied less on the sharp contrasts of light and dark that marked the Italian Baroque, but used variations in inking the plate to produce very different effects from the same image.
Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione who invent the monotype and experimented with a range of chiaroscuro effects.
Edgar Degas used very strong dramatic chiaroscuro light effects in his dark field monotypes.
Chiaroscuro woodcuts developed in the sixteenth century. They are printed with different blocks, each using a different coloured ink.
They are of two main types that can be seen as a continuum:
Firstly those based on Renaissance drawing techniques using a line block and tonal blocks. The line block helps define the whole design. These require a sophisticated level of cutting and interpretation of the subject. It is believed that this ‘Camaieu’ method was invented by Lucas Cranach while working at the court of Frederick the Wise of Saxony.
Secondly ‘true chiaroscuro’ printmaking developed in Italy. Deriving more from chiaroscuro painting styles, this relies solely on the juxtaposition of tonal relationships without outlines. Artists cut several blocks of the same design, each representing different tones. The highlights of the design were cut from the blocks to reveal the colour of the paper. The image was printed in two or three colours, black and one or two mid-tones. The mid-tones can vary from grey, green or brown. The darkest block could represent outlines. If two tones were used, the print achieved a rich, almost three-dimensional quality. Paintings by Raphael and Parmigianino were copied as chiaroscuro woodcuts and distributed throughout Italy and beyond.