Chiaroscuro (Italian for light-dark) is a term in art for a contrast between light and dark. The term is usually applied to bold contrasts affecting a whole composition, but is also more technically used by artists and art historians for the use of effects representing contrasts of light, not necessarily strong, to achieve a sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects such as the human body. Further specialised uses of the term are "chiaroscuro woodcut", used for coloured woodcuts printed with different blocks, each using a different coloured ink, and "chiaroscuro drawing" used for drawings on coloured paper with drawing in a dark medium and white highlighting. The term is now also used in describing similar effects in the lighting of cinema and photography.
The more technical use of the term chiaroscuro is the effect of light modelling in painting, drawing or printmaking, where three-dimensional volume is suggested by highlights and shadow - often called "shading". These effects were developed in the Middle Ages and were standard by the early fifteenth-century in painting and manuscript illumination in Italy and Flanders, and then spread to all Western art. The Raphael painting illustrated, with light coming from the left, demonstrates both delicate modelling chiaroscuro to give volume to the body of the model, and also strong chiaroscuro in the more common sense in the contrast between the well-lit model and the very dark background of foliage. However, to further complicate matters, the compositional chiaroscuro of the contrast between model and background would probably not be described using this term, as the two elements are almost completely separated. The term is mostly used to describe compositions where at least some principal elements of the main composition show the transition between light and dark, as in the Baglioni and Geertgen tot Sint Jans paintings illustrated above and below.
Chiaroscuro modelling is now taken for granted, but had some opponents; the English portrait miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard cautioned in his treatise on painting against all but the minimal use we see in his works, reflecting the views of his patron Queen Elizabeth I of England:"seeing that best to show oneself needeth no shadow of place but rather the open light...Her Majesty..chose her place to sit for that purpose in the open alley of a goodly garden, where no tree was near, nor any shadow at all...
In drawings and prints hatching, or shading by parallel lines, is often used to achieve modelling chiaroscuro. Washes, stipple or dotting effects, and "surface tone" in printmaking are other techniques.
Chiaroscuro woodcuts do not necessarily feature strong contrasts of light and dark, but are old master prints in woodcut using two or more blocks printed in different colours. They were first invented by Hans Burgkmair in Germany in 1508, and first made in Italy by Ugo da Carpi a few years later. Other printmakers to use the technique include Cranach, Hans Wechtlin, Hans Baldung Grien and Parmigianino. In Germany the technique was only in use for a few years, but Italians continued to use it throughout the sixteenth century, and later artists like Goltzius sometimes made use of it. In the German style, one block usually had only lines and is called the "line block", whilst the other block or blocks had flat areas of colour and are called "tone blocks". The Italians usually used only tone blocks, for a very different effect, much closer to the drawings the term was originally used for, or watercolours.
Manuscript illumination was, as in many areas, especially experimental in attempting ambitious lighting effects, as the results were not for public display. The development of compositional chiaroscuro received a considerable impetus in Northern Europe from the vision of the Nativity of Jesus of Saint Bridget of Sweden, a very popular mystic. She described the infant Jesus as emitting light himself; depictions increasingly reduced other light sources in the scene to emphasize this effect, and the Nativity remained very commonly treated with chiaroscuro through to the Baroque. Hugo van der Goes and his followers painted many scenes lit only by candle, or the divine light from the infant Christ. As with some later painters, in their hands the effect was of stillness and calm rather than the drama of the Baroque.
Strong chiaroscuro became a popular effect during the sixteenth century, in Mannerism and in Baroque art. Divine light continued to illuminate, often rather inadequately, the compositions of Tintoretto, Veronese and their many followers. Dark subjects dramatically lit by a shaft of light from a single constricted and often unseen source was a compositional device developed by Ugo da Carpi (c. 1455-c. 1523), Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643) and Caravaggio (1573-1610), the last of whom was crucial in developing the style of tenebrism, where dramatic chiaroscuro becomes a dominant stylistic device.
Tenebrism was especially practiced in Spain and the Spanish-ruled Kingdom of Naples, by Jusepe de Ribera and his followers. Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), a German artist living in Rome, produced several night scenes lit mainly by fire, and sometimes moonlight. Unlike Caravaggio, his dark areas contain very subtle detail and interest. The influences of Caravaggio and Elsheimer were strong on Peter Paul Rubens, who exploited their respective approaches to tenebrosity for dramatic effect in paintings such as The Raising of the Cross (1610–1611).
A particular genre that developed was the nocturnal scene lit by candlelight, which looked back to earlier northern artists like Geertgen tot Sint Jans and more immediately to the innovations of Caravaggio and Elsheimer. This theme played out with many artists from the Low Countries in the first few decades of the 17th century, where it became associated with the Utrecht Caravaggisti like Gerrit van Honthorst and Dirck van Baburen, and with Flemish Baroque painters such as Jacob Jordaens. Rembrandt's early works from the 1620s also adopted the single-candle light source. The nocturnal candle-lit scene re-emerged in the Dutch Republic in the mid 17th century on a smaller scale in the works of fijnschilders such as Gerrit Dou and Gottfried Schalken.
Rembrandt's own interest in effects of darkness shifted in his mature works. He relied less on the sharp contrasts of light and dark that marked the Italian influences of the earlier generation, a factor found in his mid-17th century etchings. In that medium he shared many similarities with his contemporary in Italy, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, whose work in printmaking led him to invent the monotype.
Outside of the Low Countries, artists such as Georges de La Tour and Trophime Bigot in France and Joseph Wright of Derby in England, carried on with such strong, but graduated, candlelight chiaroscuro. Watteau used a gentle chiaroscuro in the leafy backgrounds of his fêtes galantes, and this was continued in pictures by many French artists, notably Fragonard). At the end of the century Fuseli and others used a heavier chiaroscuro for romantic effect, as did Delacroix and others in the nineteenth century.
The French use of the term, clair-obscur, was introduced by the seventeenth century art-critic Roger de Piles in the course of a famous argument on the relative merits of drawing and colour in painting (Débat sur le coloris). In English the Italian term has been used since at least the late 17th century. The term is less often used of art after the late nineteenth century, although the Expressionist and other modern movements make great use of the effect. Especially since the strong 20th century rise in the reputation of Caravaggio, in non-specialist use the term is mainly used for strong chiaroscuro effects such as his, or Rembrandt's. As the Tate puts it: "Chiaroscuro is generally only remarked upon when it is a particularly prominent feature of the work, usually when the artist is using extreme contrasts of light and shade." Photography and cinema have also adopted the term.
Classical voice instructors describe the optimal balance of clearness and darkness in the singing voice tone as chiaroscuro: a combination of brightness and "ping" (brilliance and resonance) with warmth and depth.
In contemporary sculpture, the term chiaroscuro is used by visual artist David Master to describe an original technique utilized in his Chiaroscuro Series, whereby he paints the illusion of light directly onto the sculpture itself. The contrast of light and dark within these sculptures alludes to the familiar use of the term chiaroscuro (from painting, drawing, and photography), while its use in the medium of sculpture allows it to address the idea of perception and the effects of light in greater depth.
Chiaroscuro is also used in cinematography to indicate extreme low-key lighting to create distinct areas of light and darkness in films, especially in black and white films. Classic examples are The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and the black and white scenes in Andrei Tarkovsky's - Stalker (1979).
In photography, chiaroscuro is often effected with the use of "Rembrandt lighting". In more highly-developed photographic processes, this technique may also be termed "ambient/natural lighting", although when done so for the effect, the look is artificial and not generally documentary in nature.
W. Eugene Smith, Josef Koudelka, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lothar Wolleh. Annie Leibovitz, Floria Sigismondi and Ralph Gibson may be considered some of the modern masters of chiaroscuro in documentary photography.
In filmmaking, Rembrandt Lighting is characterized by such films as Warren Beatty's Reds, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, and in the documentary landscape by many of Errol Morris's films, such as, The Thin Blue Line and Gates of Heaven, films that employ extensive naturalized lighting.
Possibly the most direct personification of the intent of chiaroscuro in filmmaking, though, would perhaps be Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, in which the principal photography was shot primarily with a modified Mitchell BNC camera, and a Zeiss lens manufactured for the rigors of space photography, with a maximum aperture of f/.7. When informed that no lens currently had a wide enough aperture to shoot a costume drama set in grand palaces using only candle-light, Kubrick bought and retrofitted a special lens for these purposes. The naturally unaugmented lighting situations in the film exemplified low-key, natural lighting in filmwork at its most extreme outside of the Eastern European/Soviet filmmaking tradition (itself exemplified by the harsh low-key lighting style employed by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein).
Sven Nykvist, the longtime collaborator of Ingmar Bergman, also informed much of his photography with chiaroscuro realism, as well as Gregg Toland, who influenced such cinematographer's as László Kovács, Vilmos Zsigmond, and Vittorio Storaro with his use of deep and selective focus augmented with strong horizon-level key lighting penetrating through windows and doorways. Much of the celebrated film noir tradition relies on techniques Toland perfected in the early thirties that are related to, but not are directly, chiaroscuro (high-key lighting, stage lighting, frontal lighting, and other effects are interspersed in ways that diminish the chiaroscuro claim).
With the recent advent of high-speed filmmaking, Barry Lyndon has not stood long as the lone example of unaugmented cinematic chiaroscuro realism. Darius Khondji (Se7en), Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan), Wally Pfister, and Harris Savides carry on the technique using film that, in some instances, is up to 20x faster than the film Kubrick shot Barry Lyndon on.
Chiaroscuro in modelling; Prints and drawings
Chiaroscuro as a major element in composition
Chiaroscuro woodcuts and drawings