Art History Basics: ‘Chiaroscuro’

Learning about art history can be intimidating as it is, but add in the variety of terms borrowed from Italian or French and it can feel like a whole other language (literally!).

Hans Holbein, ‘Christ at Rest’ 1519

The term ‘chiaroscuro’, translating to “light-dark,” comes from the Renaissance period when delicate modeling of figures, first in drawing, were created by first using white gouche to create the highlights of the figure (light) and then going in with watercolor or ink to create the shadows and dimension (dark). This technique expanded into many more mediums, the term used to describe creating three-dimensionality of figures using lighter and darker shades and is accepted as one of the canonical painting modes of the Renaissance period.

Renaissance and Baroque Color: Researching Chiaroscuro ...
After Parmigiano, “Circe Giving Drink,” 1540s. Chiaroscuro woodcut

The period say the development of Chiarascuro woodcut, which were created by using two or more blocks with different colors, typically a lighter and a darker shade, to create volume. Woodcuts like this were created in Germany and Italy throughout the 16th century as artists sought to emphasize shape and volume.

As the 17th century began, chiaroscuro became more dramatic specifically in painting as the High Renaissance period made way for Mannerism and the Baroque. The interest in understanding light led many artists to begin experimenting with the use of light for dramatic or emotional effect. The wash of light coming from outside the frame became a more concentrated light, revealing part of the scene and keeping much of it in shadow or darkness. This is best recognized in the work of Baroque artist Caravaggio.

Caravaggio, ‘The Calling of Saint Matthew’, 1599-1600

This new strong chiaroscuro gained a new name, ‘tenebrism, or tenebroso” which denoted the dramatic difference between light and dark, rather than the more subtle molding of light seen in the High Renaissance. Tenebrism falls under the umbrella of Chiaroscuro, but refers to this much more drastic use of light.

The use of chiaroscuro continued throughout art history and is now considered common place for realistic modeling in art. The use of light and dark is now typically only noticed in art if it is especially dramatic. The term is also used in photography and film, indicating the use of high-contrast lighting to create distinct spaces of light and dark. This is especially used in black-and-white firm and can be used as a narrative tool. Spaces with lots of light are traditionally considered better, cleaner, and perhaps safer, while dark spaces can give a sense of looming danger, evil, and mystery.

Chiaroscuro in Film - The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon, 1941

Light and the way it creates volume and shape is often taken for granted because we are so used to seeing it, but the use of chiaroscuro in art was an important moment in the history of art and understanding it and the way it’s used is an excellent tool for every beginning art historian to have!

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