Research point: Chiaroscuro

Updated on 19 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

13 March, 2016. The term “Chiaroscuro”, meaning “light-dark” in Italian, is a powerful means of contrasting and linking light and dark areas in a painting. Several drawing and painting techniques such as hatching, stippling and washes are suitable to use the chiaroscuro effect to suggest volume. This excludes a mere difference between a dark background and a bright foreground, but rather requires the depicted volume itself to show some gradation between light and dark areas (The National Gallery, 2017).
I had a look at several artists using chiaroscuro and found that I liked those paintings most, where the effect was not used only to produce dramatic lighting, but where it is a believable and intrinsic part of the scene. I may be wrong, but e.g. in the following painting (Fig. 1) (Baglione, 1602) the effect, while looking great, is there for drama only, but as far as I can see has no part in the story :

Figure 1. Giovanni Baglione: Sacred Love and Profane Love, 1602, oil on canvas. Source: Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

In the second example by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797, England), the “Orrery” (Wright of Derby, ca. 1766) in Fig. 2 below, on the other hand, the chiaroscuro has a story to tell:

Figure 2. Joseph Wright of Derby: The Orrery, ca. 1766, oil on canvas. Source: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

When I started exploring the works of Caravaggio (1571-1610) I found that I was unable to look at the many cruel scenes, but found one work in particular very appealing regarding its intriguing lighting conditions, “The Calling of Saint Matthew” (Caravaggio, ca. 1599-1600) (Fig. 3 below). While on the righthand side the light comes into the room from above, the persons in the shade immediately below are exposed to an extreme chiaroscuro effect, while it is much subdued in the direct light between the people sitting at the table. This makes the composition very lively and also helps the viewer’s eye to be guided through the painting. The direction of the light coming in from the right follows that of the outstretched hand of Jesus immmediately below and thereafter illuminates Saint Matthew’s own hand and face. There is no mistaking the story:

Figure 3. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: The Calling of Saint Matthew, ca. 1599-1600, oil on canvas. Source: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Looking at Tintoretto’s (1518-1594, Italy) work it is immediately obvious that he, born more than 50 years before Caravaggio, was still very much a Renaissance artist, while Caravaggio already helped prepare the way into the Baroque. For me it is fascinating to get reminded of the rapid and often fierce development of art going own during that short period of time. Chiaoscuro was probably not as prominent in Tintoretto’s work and, in my opinion, did not seem to be celebrated by him as a tool serving to increase drama: In his “Last Supper” (Tintoretto, 1592-94) below, for example, the many glorioles and bodyless heavenly creatures populating the dark background reduce the effect:

Figure 4. Jacopo Tintoretto: Last Supper, 1592-94, oil on canvas, 365 x 568 cm (!). Source: Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) born only a few years after Caravaggio, but living for many decades longer than the latter, developed to become a truly Baroque painter. In his self-portrait, whose expression admittedly I do not like, the weighting of the chiaroscuro across the canvas is visible as in Caravaggio’s painting above (Rubens, 1623) (Fig. 5):

Figure 5. Peter Paul Rubens: Portrait of the Artist, 1623, oil on panel. Source: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Since I also wanted to see how chiaroscuro still has a prominent place in modern art I tried to get an overview over the many different techniques and styles. It is most obvious in portrait photography, and in black-and white films, most famously e.g. in “The Third Man”, but also in countless painted examples. One lecture on chiaroscuro by J.B. Treadwell (n.d.) I found highly instructive at the time of writing this post, but sadly has disappeared from the web (Treadwell, 2016), but it is worth having a look at the collection of posts on Pinterest (Pinerest, 2017).

It is very likely, since the effect is so stunning, that not many artists, except for those working in completely abstract ways, will deliberately forgo the use of chiaroscuro in their work. Indeed, after having spent two very rewarding hours looking at extremes of light and darkness, my own surroundings look curiously flat. Will have to do something about that ;o).


Baglione, G. (1602) Sacred Love and Profane Love [oil on canvas] [online]. Gallerie Nationale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

da Caravaggio, M. M. (ca. 1599-1600) The Calling of Saint Matthew [oil on canvas] [online]. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Pinterest (2017) Chiaroscuro examples [online]. Pinterest. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Rubens, P. P. (1623) Portrait of the Artist [oil on canvas] [online]. Royal Collection. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

The National Gallery (2017) Glossary: Chiaroscuro [online]. The National Gallery, London. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Tintoretto, J. (1592-94) The Last Supper [oil on canvas] [online]. San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Treadwell, B.T. (n.d.) (lecture on chiaroscuro) [online]. Available at: [13 March 2016]

Wright of Derby, J. (ca. 1766) The Orrery [oil on canvas] [online]. Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby. Available at:,_The_Orrery.jpg [Accessed 19 February 2017]



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