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In this lesson we’ll take a look at the technique known as chiaroscuro, used by artists from the Renaissance onward to create a sense of drama and the illusion of volume.

Definition of Chiaroscuro

Painters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods wanted to engage their viewers. Like the cinematographers of classic Hollywood, they used the play of light and shadow to give life and drama to their images. The word chiaroscuro is Italian for light and shadow. It’s one of the classic techniques used in the works of artists like Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Caravaggio. It refers to the use of light and shadow to create the illusion of light from a specific source shining on the figures and objects in the painting. Along with linear perspective, chiaroscuro was one of the new techniques used by painters of the Renaissance to make their paintings look truly three-dimensional.

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Like photographers and cinematographers centuries later, painters realized that the contrast between areas of light and dark heighten the impact of an image. As the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque, a style that emphasized drama and emotional intensity, some artists developed an exaggerated form of chiaroscuro known as tenebrism, from the Italian word tenebroso, meaning gloomy or murky.

Chiaroscuro Technique

As a painting technique, chiaroscuro takes advantage of the special qualities of oil paint, which is pigment suspended in linseed oil. It replaced tempera as the medium of choice for painters in Europe during the Renaissance.

Tempera paint, usually made with egg yolk, was opaque and acted more like enamel. It was difficult to model figures to look three dimensional when using tempera. Unlike tempera, oil paint could be easily blended and shaded, built up in layers, or applied in translucent glazes. By applying light tones on top of dark, painters could create the effect of figures emerging from shadow.The term chiaroscuro is also applied to drawing, but in a very specific way. A chiaroscuro drawing is made on medium-toned paper using both dark and light (usually white) lines to create the illusion of three dimensions.A chiaroscuro woodcut refers to a print made by printing different blocks using different tones, creating the same effect.

Artists & Examples

Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is considered an important figure in the development of chiaroscuro, especially in his later works, but he’s best known for his use of a similar technique, sfumato, meaning smoky, in which the outlines of figures are softened, as if seen through a haze of smoke.Among the Baroque artists most strongly associated with chiaroscuro technique are the Italian painter Caravaggio (1571-1610) and the French painter Georges de La Tour (1593-1652), as well as Rembrandt (1606-1669), who lived and worked in the Netherlands.An eighteenth-century English painter, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), is known for his dramatic use of chiaroscuro, especially in his depictions of scientists and scholars.Some painters associated with the Romantic Movement – such as Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), a Swiss-born painter working in England, and the French painter Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) – used chiaroscuro, but as time went on, it began to seem old-fashioned.In the later nineteenth century, the lavish use of dark shadow and the painstaking work of building up layers of underpainting and glazes became associated with the stiff, formal style of the academies. The Impressionists, who rebelled against this kind of painting, often painted outdoors in strong light, using bright colors straight from the tube. From this point on, those in the vanguard of modern art generally had little use for chiaroscuro.

Lesson Summary

The word chiaroscuro is Italian for light and shadow. It’s one of the classic techniques used in the works of artists like Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Caravaggio. It refers to the use of light and shadow to create the illusion of light from a specific source shining on the figures and objects in the painting. Like photographers and cinematographers centuries later, these painters realized that the contrast between areas of light and dark heightened the impact of an image and created deeper three-dimensionality.Chiaroscuro takes advantage of the special qualities of oil paint, which is pigment suspended in linseed oil. It could be easily blended and shaded, built up in layers, or applied in translucent glazes. By applying light tones on top of dark, painters could create the effect of figures emerging from shadow.

In the later nineteenth century, this technique became associated with the stiff, formal style of the academies. The Impressionists, who rebelled against this kind of painting, often painted outdoors in strong light and used bright colors. Chiaroscuro was soon a thing of the past.

Key Terms

Chiaroscuro technique example
lightandshadow
  • Chiaroscuro: the use of light and shadow in art
  • Tenebrism: gloomy or murky style of chiaroscuro
  • Oil Paint: contains color (pigment) suspended in linseed oil
  • Chiaroscuro Drawing: placed on a medium-toned paper using dark and light lines to create a look of three dimensions
  • Chiaroscuro Woodcut: a print done using different blocks to create the chiaroscuro look
  • Sfumato: smoky chiaroscuro technique developed by da Vinci

Learning Outcomes

Completing this lesson should help you prepare to do the following:

  • Define chiaroscuro as it relates to art
  • Identify some of the great artists who excelled at the technique
  • Describe how this style is achieved

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