The meaning of Chiaroscuro

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro.

Today we are going to learn more about a very important art concept and technique: chiaroscuro.

Remember that whenever you see a blue word it means that it’s linked to the glossary on my website where you can learn more about meanings and find a lot of examples.

Back to our chiaroscuro. First of all, what’s the meaning.

Chiaroscuro Meaning and Origins

Chiaroscuro comes from the Italian words “chiaro” which means “clear” or “bright” and “scuro” meaning “dark, obscure”. So, it refers to a combination of light and dark that creates a contrast with the purpose of achieving a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures.

The term chiaroscuro originated during the Renaissance when the artists used to draw on colored paper using black ink for the dark parts and white gouache for the bright ones.

It was actually possible to reach the effect even with the careful use of ink and Leonardo da Vinci was a master on that.

However, more than the drawings, the chiaroscuro technique is clearer on the paintings. Leonardo himself used it with great results as we can see in the famous Monna Lisa where the lower part of the painting is darker to focus our attention more on other elements or in the Last Supper on which he depicted the back of the room in the shade (with a purpose of course).

The Last Supper_Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper - Leonardo da Vinci

Chiaroscuro power

And that’s a fundamental element to consider: chiaroscuro is not just a show-off to create the perfect idea of volumes inside a work of art (even if it’s very important to reach a realistic result). Chiaroscuro in fact can be used to drive the attention of the viewer on specific details and to communicate a message.

And the best artist who managed to use it with this purpose has been for sure Caravaggio. The Baroque painter in fact pushed chiaroscuro to an extreme level of drama and intensity making of the light the protagonist of his masterpieces.

And when I said light, with Caravaggio it means a single light source. A solution insanely difficult to manage, but he was a genius and so he reached high tonal contrasts and high realism like no one else before him. Chiaroscuro meaning

The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio - Baroque Painting
The Calling of St Matthew

His impact on art has been so strong that he revolutionized the use of this technique influencing all the painters and artists after him even if he never had his own school or workshop to teach and promote his style.

Among them: Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrant, Gericault, Ribera and I could continue with a long list.

Peter Paul Rubens - Two Women with a Candle - detail
Peter Paul Rubens - Two Women with a Candle


Thanks to Caravaggio and also to the Baroque style, many artists understood how the contrast of light and dark is great to create more drama in a scene. That’s why, from the painting, this approach moved to other visual arts, like architecture, sculpture, but also photography and movies.

If you want to look at some examples of chiaroscuro, you can find the links in the chiaroscuro section of the glossary, but remember also to subscribe so you won’t miss the next episodes. Thanks for watching and, if you want to support this project, check on my Patreon where you can download a lot of contents that I regularly create for you. Ciao!

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