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Chiaroscuro

In art, chiaroscuro is a term that stems from the Italian words chiaro, which means “clear” or “light,” and oscuro, meaning “obscure” or “dark.” It refers to the interplay between light and dark within a composition. Throughout history, artists have strategically utilized light and darkness to generate a sense of depth, tension, and emotional impact. Some of the artists notably used chiaroscuro include Renaissance visionary Leonardo da Vinci from the late 15th and early 16th centuries, followed by Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio from the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Leonardo da Vinci is credited with pioneering chiaroscuro as a formal concept. He discovered that the gradual transition of light could effectively portray a three-dimensional quality on a flat surface, which can be seen in The Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1491–1508). This painting features a triangular composition of three figures surrounding the Virgin Mary, strategically situated within a mysterious landscape. Employing a rocky backdrop to obscure natural light, only specific parts of the figures are illuminated. The interplay of light and shadows in the dark environment not only imparts an ethereal beauty but also enhances the realism of the figures by highlighting their features.

Leonardo da Vinci
The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1491–1508
Oil on panel
189.5 x 120 cm (74.6 x 47.2 in.)
The National Gallery, London

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Narcissus, 1597-1599
Oil on canvas
113.3 x 94 cm (44.6 x 37 in.)
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Caravaggio developed a distinct style of chiaroscuro, known as tenebrism, by which he dramatically illuminated his subjects most often within a setting of complete darkness. For example, Narcissus (1597-1599) illustrates the story of a Greek mythology character who succumbed to his own beauty after encountering his own reflection in the water. In this painting, Caravaggio employs a heightened sense of theatricality through the use of intense shadows and striking lighting to isolate the central figure, creating the illusion of a spotlight. This adoption of high tonal contrasts became popular throughout Europe, profoundly shaping subsequent generations of artists as a defining feature of Baroque art.

Although its roots can be traced back to paintings and drawings, the impact of chiaroscuro can also be seen in various forms of visual art, such as photography, film, and graphic design, serving as a powerful device to imbue emotion and drama.

Related categories

Painting

Oil Painting

Light/Lightings

Face/Body (Human Figures)

Tension/Relief

Historical Figures

Tempera

(Inspired by) Old Masters

Sublime

European Art

Italian Art

Oil Paint

17th Century Art

Heroic Figures

(Inspired by) Folk Tales/Myths

16th Century Art

Emotion

Renaissance Art