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.
The Last Supper 1594
Tintoretto – 1518-1594
The illumination in this painting is derived from candle/lamplight and, a technique often used in Baroque religious paintings, of divine light. A light from an indeterminable source.
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.
The Crucifixion of St Peter 1600-1601
Caravaggio – 1571-1610
Chiaroscuro used to its most dramatic effect.
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.
The Death Scene of Seneca 1614
Rubens – 1577-1640
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 1629
One of the many self portraits painted throughout his life. In this painting the artist was around 23 years old and is one I was not familiar with previously.
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.
A later example of Rembrandt’s work with the light source throwing emphasis on the figure’s face full of resignation to her fate.
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.
The Orrery (A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery) 1766 by Joseph Wright of Derby 1734 – 1797. Located in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England. This painting shows the demonstration of an orrery using the lamp as the light source as if it were the sun. The faces are beautifully up-lit with the foreground in darkness.
Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight (Dressing the Kitten) – 1768-1770 by Joseph Wright of Derby, located in Kenwood House, London. I have seen this painting before, and although it is a little “twee” for my taste, the chiaroscuro effect is superb.
Artist and Model Looking at an Ancient Statue by Lamplight – 1675-1680 by Gottfried Schalken 1643 – 1706, in a Private Collection.
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 Drinker by Dirk Van Baburen (1570/90-1623/4). Located in the Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris. A less obvious use of chiaroscuro with a mid tone background, however, the face is highly modelled with light and dark with a strong light source from the front left.
The Artist at Work by Gerrit Van Honthorst 1592-1656. Located in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome. A more limited palette than many of the these examples which may be more realistic as colour may have been drained by the lack of light other than a simple candle.
The below are two French artists who have created some wonderful paintings using chiaroscuro.
The Appearance of an Angel to St Joseph (The Dream of St Joseph) 1652 by Georges de la Tour 1593-1652. Located in Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France. A beautiful, if slightly ambiguous, painting. This angel has no obvious holy accoutrements and is clearly female – most angels are rendered as male. However, the candlelight illuminates the child’s face and warmth of her hair colour along with Joseph’s robes and the shadows are soft and soothing. I particularly like the treatment of the book’s pages hinting at the delicacy of the the paper with light coming through.
Allegory of Vanity by Trophime Bigot 1650-1699, located in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome. This looks to be a classic example of chiaroscuro technique with strong candlelight on the face and front of the figure. It is also full of symbolism, the skull, the mirror in darkness and I’m sure the object in the right foreground – although I can’t for the life of me make out what it is – maybe someone can tell me?
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.