What is Chiaroscuro?


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).

Christ at Rest by Hans Holbeing the Younger (Wikimedia)

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.

The Nativity at Night 1490 (wikimedia)

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.

Sacred and profane love Giovanni Baglione 1602-3
Sacred and profane love Giovanni Baglione 1602-3
The Matchmaker by Gerrit van Honthorst
The Matchmaker by Gerrit van Honthorst (Wikipedia)

Chiaroscuro Still Life

Chiaroscuro became a key feature of Still Life painting to create drama and/or emphasis symbolic meanings.

Jan van de Velde Still Life with Glass
Jan van de Velde Still Life with Glass

Jan van de Velde Google images

Juan Sanchez Cotan Google images.

See more Google images of Chiaroscuro Still Life

 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.

Rembrandt: Christ Healing the Sick (Hundred Guilder Print), detail of an etching showing the use of chiaroscuro, c. 1643–49.
Rembrandt: Christ Healing the Sick (Hundred Guilder Print), detail of an etching showing the use of chiaroscuro, c. 1643–49.


Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione who invent the monotype and experimented with a range of chiaroscuro effects.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-64) - The Nativity with Angels Royal Collection Trust
Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-64) – The Nativity with Angels Royal Collection Trust

Edgar Degas used very strong dramatic chiaroscuro light effects in his dark field monotypes.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917) The Tub, ca. 1876–1877
Edgar Degas (1834–1917) The Tub, ca. 1876–1877


Chiaroscuro woodcuts   developed in the sixteenth century. They are printed with different blocks, each using a different coloured ink.

Andrea Andreani 'Rape of a Sabine Woman' 1584
Andrea Andreani ‘Rape of a Sabine Woman’ 1584

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.

See: Emily Spicer: Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro Woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna; Royal Academy of Arts, London 15 March – 8 June 2014

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.

See RISD Museum chiaroscuro woodcut

Other sources and references


2017 Monochrome exhibition at National Gallery



Japanese dark, light. A notan painting is a small, quickly executed monochrome painting that consists of simple shapes in a number of flat values.

positive and negative space

barry john raybould:

mass notan: rough plan of disrribution of light and dark shapes. 7 or less shapes.

contour notan: detailed exploration of exact contour of light and dark shapes

limited value study: quick painting in 3,4 or 5 values.

shape simplification. Merge shapes that have similar values into larger shapes of one









Lynd Ward

Trailer — “O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward”


Gods’ men HD


The Biggest Bear


Google images

Lynd Kendall Ward (June 26, 1905 – June 28, 1985) was an American artist and storyteller, known for his series of wordless novels using wood engraving, and his illustrations for juvenile and adult books. His wordless novels have influenced the development of the graphic novel. Strongly associated with his wood engravings, he also worked in watercolor, oil, brush and ink, lithography and mezzotint. Ward was a son of Methodist minister and political organizer Harry F. Ward.


Lynd Kendall Ward was born on June 26, 1905, in Chicago, Illinois. His father, Harry F. Ward, was born in Chiswick, England, in 1873; the elder Ward was a Methodist who moved to the United States in 1891 after reading the progressive Social Aspects of Christianity (1889) by Richard T. Ely.

Ward was early drawn to art, and decided to become an artist when his first-grade teacher told him that “Ward” spelled backward is “draw”. Ward studied fine arts at Columbia Teachers College in New York. He edited the Jester of Columbia, to which he contributed arts and crafts how-to articles.

Ward studied as a special one-year student at the National Academy of Graphic Arts and Bookmaking in Leipzig.  He learned etching from Alois Kolb, lithography from Georg Alexander Mathéy, and wood engraving from Hans Alexander “Theodore” Mueller; Ward was particularly influenced by Mueller. Ward chanced across a copy of Flemish artist Frans Masereel‘s wordless novel The Sun (1919), a story told in sixty-three silent woodcuts.

Ward returned to the United States in September 1927, and a number of book publishers in his portfolio. In 1928, his first commissioned work illustrated Dorothy Rowe‘s The Begging Deer: Stories of Japanese Children with eight brush drawings. May helped with background research for the illustrations, and wrote another book of Japanese folk tales, Prince Bantam (1929), with illustrations by Ward. Other work at the time included illustrations for the children’s book Little Blacknose by Hildegarde Swift, and an illustrated edition of Oscar Wilde‘s poem “Ballad of Reading Gaol“.

In 1929, Ward was inspired to create a wordless novel of his own after he came across German artist Otto Nückel‘s Destiny (1926). The first American wordless novel, Gods’ Man was published by Smith & Cape that October, the week before the Wall Street Crash of 1929; over the next four years, it sold more than 20,000 copies.[11] He made five more such works: Madman’s Drum (1930), Wild Pilgrimage (1932), Prelude to a Million Years (1933),Song Without Words (1936), and Vertigo (1937).

In addition to woodcuts, Ward also worked in watercolor, oil, brush and ink, lithography and mezzotint. Ward illustrated over a hundred children’s books, several of which were collaborations with his wife, May McNeer. Starting in 1938, Ward became a frequent illustrator of the Heritage Limited Editions Club’s series of classic works. He was well known for the political themes of his artwork, often addressing labor and class issues. In 1932 he founded Equinox Cooperative Press. He was a member of the Society of Illustrators, the Society of American Graphic Arts, and the National Academy of Design. Ward retired to his home in Reston, Virginia, in 1979. He died on June 28, 1985, two days after his 80th birthday.

In celebration of the art and life of this American printmaker and illustrator, independent filmmaker Michael Maglaras of 217 Films produced a new film titled “O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward.” The documentary features an interview with the artist’s daughter Robin Ward Savage, as well as more than 150 works from all periods of Ward’s career. The 94-minute documentary, culled from over 7 hours of film and narrated by Maglaras, premiered at Penn State University Libraries, Foster Auditorium, on April 20, 2012, where it was warmly received. Penn State’s Special Collections Library has also become the repository for much Lynd Ward material, and may continue to receive material from Ward family collections.

 Novels in woodcuts

Ward is known for his wordless novels told entirely through dramatic wood engravings. Ward’s first work, Gods’ Man (1929), uses a blend of Art Deco and Expressionist styles to tell the story of an artist’s struggle with his craft, his seduction and subsequent abuse by money and power, his escape to innocence, and his unavoidable doom. Ward, in employing the concept of the wordless pictorial narrative, acknowledged as his predecessors the European artists Frans Masereel and Otto Nückel. Released the week of the 1929 stock market crash, Gods’ Manwould continue to exert influence well beyond the Depression era, becoming an important source of inspiration for Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg.

Ward produced six wood engraving novels over the next eight years, including:

Ward left one more wordless novel partially completed at the time of his death in 1985. The 26 completed wood engravings (out of a planned total of 44) were published in a limited edition in 2001, under the title Lynd Ward’s Last, Unfinished, Wordless Novel.[15]

He also produced a wordless story for children, The Silver Pony, which is told entirely in black, white and shades of gray painted illustrations; it was published in 1973.

Other works

In 1930 Ward’s wood engravings were used to illustrate Alec Waugh‘s travel book Hot Countries; in 1936 an edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published with illustrations by Ward. His work on children’s books included his 1953 Caldecott Medal winning book The Biggest Bear, and his work on Esther ForbesJohnny Tremain.

Ward illustrated the 1942 children’s book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, with text by Hildegarde Swift.

Ward’s work included an awareness of the racial injustice to be found in the United States. This is first apparent in the lynching scenes from Wild Pilgrimage and appears again in his drawings for North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro, by Hildegarde Hoyt Swift, published in 1947. Ward uses African American characters, as well as several different Native ones in his book The Silver Pony.

In 1941 his illustrations were used in Great Ghost Stories of the World:The Haunted Omnibus, edited by Alexander Laing.

In 1974 Harry N. Abrams published Storyteller Without Words, a book that included Ward’s six novels plus an assortment of his illustrations from other books. Ward himself broke his silence and wrote brief prologues to each of his works. In 2010, the Library of America published Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts, with a new chronology of Ward’s life and an introduction by Art Spiegelman.

Source: Wikipedia, You Tube and reading of the novels.

Katarzyna Cyganic


Katarzyna’s work is extremely detailed linocut made of dot shading and very fine markmaking. It has a dreamy quality. I am not sure if this is partly done using etching techniques with bleach, or something like a mezzotint shader.

She also generally chooses dramatic composition – reflections, swirling sky and water. The compositions are often upside down reflections in water, or putting the dark area at the top right. This significantly increases the sense of drama and the unexpected even on apparently simple scenes of just trees and water.

website: http://www.linoart.eu is now subscription only

Reflections This is an amazingly detailed and well-obesrved linocut rendering of tree reflections in water.

Forest This shows leaves falling from trees with sharp contrast between the white leaf shapes against a misty background of forest trees.


Landscape  This shows a waterlily pond with beautiful contrasts between the dark round waterlily leaves, straggly thin stems and water.

Landscape This shows a seascape with swirling waves in very small marks. Though the scene itself is not so unusual.

More information


There is no biography or details of technique or size of the images on the website.

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas has been influential in my work for:


Hauptman, J. (2016). Degas: A Strange New Beauty. New York, MoMA.

Google images for Degas chiaroscuro

Degas Le Sommeil c 1885 Courtesy of British Museum
Degas Le Sommeil c 1885 Courtesy of British Museum


Degas (1834-1917) took up monotype printing in 1874-75. Degas found monotype gave him greater freedom to improvise and be spontaneous than drawing on paper allowed.  It was ideal for capturing secret and intimate scenes, such as women engaged in their toilet or in brothel scenes. He was influenced by Japanese woodblock prints and was interested in the ways shapes and lines can be organised on paper to indicate figures in movement. From 1870s he started to have problems with his eyesight, so he was more sensitive to light/dark contrasts and created dramatic chiaroscuro effects.

He was introduced to the process by his friend the amateur etcher Vicomte Ludovic Napoléon Lepic (1839-1889).  Lepic enjoyed experimenting tonal wiping (l’eau forte mobile or variable etching) to create many variations on a basic landscape composition. He used one etched plate and  wiped off this plate, and also ‘retroussage’,  a way of adding ink to previously wiped plates to produce much richer tones on the prints.

Degas adopted this  ‘dark-field’ method. He covered the entire surface of the printing plate in oily, slow-drying ink and then removed it as necessary to create the image. He scratched and brushed it, wiped it with a rag and manipulated it with his fingers to create the composition, before fixing it by printing it onto paper. He worked and reworked his plates, wiping off and adding ink with rags, fingers and brushes. Later he began to draw on the plate with Indian ink, often diluting it with turpentine and working directly on the plate with a paintbrush.

Degas usually printed two impressions of each monotype subject, one strong, the other weak. He would keep untouched the first impressions (this is a first impression), but he would rework the second with pastel or gouache.

In his lifetime he produced more than 250 subjects and 400 separate impressions in monotype, far exceeding his etchings or lithographs. He used ghost prints as a basis for pastels. Between 1876-1881 nearly 70% of his works in colour were monoprints enhanced with pastel, sometimes drawing with them, sometimes wetting them for watercolour effects to give different moods, and to add and take away figures.

Degas Creative Commons site for paintings only.