From the Italian for light or clear (chiaro) and dark or obscure (scuro). A technique that has been used for centuries by artists to “model” with light and dark: to enhance volume and form, drama and focus. Lighting is always an important factor in rendering the illusion of three dimensions in a two dimensional form, not only in paintings but photography and cinema too, I feel that this is why I am more drawn to dramatically lit black and white photography rather than colour.
Explore the works of some of the artists whose work exemplifies chiaroscuro effects such Tintoretto, Caravaggio and Rubens.
After spending a couple of days pouring over examples of chiaroscuro paintings, I am in awe of the skill of the 17th century artists who instilled such drama and atmosphere in their work, particularly, considering the poor lighting in which they worked. I know from experience of classes in village halls where lighting is not easily controllable, that, even if you have good/interesting lighting on your subject, you may not be able to see your own canvas clearly. This throws out tones and colour and can make your work look completely different when viewed elsewhere. These artists worked by light of a naked flame once daylight had passed, yet they mastered this technique with fantastic dexterity.
A different take on the many versions of the Last Supper, and Tintoretto created numerous compositions of the scene. In this one the focus is on the supporting figures in the foreground, the woman at the barrel with light to the side of her casting a strong shadow across her face and torso.
This is an absolutely stunning painting. The light is coming from above and slightly from the left, highlighting the plight and pain of St Peter. The composition is highly unusual, with the stresses and strains of hoisting the cross upside down denoting the difference between this and the crucifixion of Christ. Even though the light source initially seems to bleach out the colours of the focal point, the more you study the figure of St Peter the more colours in the flesh appear to you. The viewer is placed higher than the figures as if looking down on the scene from a place of superiority, which makes it all the more disturbing to me.
Again, the drama is depicted by the shadowy supporting figures with the light falling on the scene’s focus of Seneca. I have to admit I was not familiar with the story/myth of Seneca, however, I began reading an account documented in the e-book:
Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero
By James Romm
A fascinating read of Ancient Rome and its tribulations, not yet finished but I will continue. A popular story for artist’s depiction.
Look also at the candlelit studies of some northern European artists, most especially Rembrandt and Joseph Wright of Derby.
My initial research was purely for artists who use chiaroscuro techniques and I found a good selection of northern European artists from Flemish, to French to English nationalities. Here are some of the works I particularly liked:
Self-Portrait, c.1629 (oil on wood) by Rijn, Rembrandt van (1606-69); Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA; The Clowes Fund Collection. A strong use of chiaroscuro with a three quarters view and the majority of the face in shadow due to the light source and cover from the hat and hair. The clothing is also dark in colour and shade to throw focus on the illuminated section of face.
Lucretia, 1666 (oil on canvas) by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-69) Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN, USA, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund.
A thought provoking and sad rendition of this story, unusually told after the fatal wound has been made. Lucretia is here waiting for the inevitable ending.
I am grateful to this exercise in making me research the following artists, of which I knew little if anything. It also shows what an impact Caravaggio had on the art world in his time and ever since.
Below are two examples of Joseph Wright of Derby paintings using light and dark to excellent effect.
Gottfried Schalken was known as one of the Fijnschilders or Fine Painters in the Dutch Baroque style that made, as well as everyday life, candlelit nocturnal paintings.
The below are two French artists who have created some wonderful paintings using chiaroscuro.
What I’ve taken away from this is that there is no light without dark and vice versa. Whichever effect you want to create: drama, vibrancy, softness or a pure realistic rendering, the modelling of light and dark is a key element in representational painting.
All research via a combination of Bridgeman Education and Wikipedia sites, with photographs being downloadable due to editorial usage and not for commercial gain.