Chiaroscuro – originally meant working on coloured paper, building light tones with white and working down to dark tones with black. This technique is said to have drawn on traditions in illuminated manuscripts, where many scenes are lit only by candle or the divine light from the infant Christ. Much later Georges de la Tour drew inspiration from this idea (and Caravaggio’s work, although without his penchant for the macabre), and produced this Christ-lit serene scene, The New Born Child, from the 1640s. It certainly shows a warm and tender atmosphere, due partly to the lighting, but also I feel to the red and golden colours. The light in this paintng is convincing, but definitely used as an artifice, to tell a story.
Chiaroscuro has a variety of meanings, but in the 16th century it became a popular effect, with dark subjects dramatically lit by a raking shaft of light from a single, constricted, unseen source. This created extremely bold contrasts, affecting a whole composition, allowing subtle gradation of tone to create a strong illusion of volume and depth.
Caravaggio exemplifies the use of such compositional chiaroscuro. I visited St Johns Co-Cathedral in Valetta, Malta and saw two of his paintings – The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, and St Jerome. They’re quite different in subject matter, the one portraying the story of dark and dramatic deed, the other depicting a quite and studious moment in time. In both cases a spotlight is shining on the subject and the surroundings are in almost total darkness. There is very little half tone or reflected light. This has the effect of completely directing the onlookers attention on the subject, with a minimum of distracting elements.
It is an extreme depiction of light, but effective, and used knowingly to focus on the subject. I find if I look at a subject I’m painting and screw my eyes up, the midtones of my subject disappear and the lights and darks become more intense, just as in Caravaggio’s work – so it is reality, but just not the everyday reality of things we casually look at. To get this lighting in a posed subject you would have to surround it with dark clth, and Spotlight the subject strongly from one direction.
Caravaggio’s influence was strong on many later artists, including Rubens.
In The Elevation of the Cross, 1610-11, Rubens uses chiaroscuro to highlight and mould the anatomical form of the diagonal line of the subject, making the figure appear really solid and to recede in space.
Artemisia Gentileschi, also influenced by Caravaggio, was an outstanding exponent of the style, as seen in Judith Slaying Holofernes, below. The background is completely without form or texture, highlighting the three characters as they play out their dreadful scene.
Tintoretto was a master of dark tones illuminated by gleams of light as in A Concert of Muses, and The Last Supper, below. He used chiaroscuro in his compositional structure in a different way to Caravaggio. We are not looking at a drama enacted in a pool of darkness, here chiaroscuro is used as an element in the compositions. The lights direct the viewers gaze around the compositions, but there is still plenty of interest in the other parts of the compositions.
A later genre using compositional chiaroscuro was the nocturnal scene lit by candlelight, as in Rembrandt’s early work from the 1620s, which had a single, candlelight source. An example is The Rich Fool, 1627, below;
A later Rembrandt, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, 1661-2, tells the story of a dramatic event, lit by a central lamp, or candle placed on the table but hidden from view.
The lighting in Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch is harder to explain: brilliant highlights and deep shadows suggest a moment in time between what preceded it and what is about to happen. But if the source of light is the moon, how can both the lieutenant and the woman in the background be lit? And if the scene is lit by artificial light, wouldn’t each object have more than one shadow? The light is so intense it must be from the sun – but in that case, why is everything else in darkness? Only the woman, the lieutenant and a few individual faces are lit. In the face of these inconsistencies however, there is one detail that is so convincing, it makes the whole scene plausible – the shadow of the captain’s outstretched hand.
For my own work therefore I’m starting to think I might represent my subject in any way I choose, however unlikely, to suit my purpose – and that the onlooker can be convinced, or at least accept my vision, if I add to the mix one or two convincing details – which will have the power to suspend disbelief, or override it altogether!
In England Joseph Wright of Derby painted with strong, but graduated, candlelight chiaroscuro. The composition An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, below, shows an incredible mastery of artificial lighting. The scene is “dramatically tenebrous”, “bright highlights juxtaposed with black darkness”, (andrewgrahamdixon.com)in the style of Caravaggio.
Other good examples of Chiaroscuro as a major element of composition which I looked at were – Durer, self portrait 1500; The Proposition by Judith Leyster; Goya, The Execution of 3rd May, 1808, 1814; and Christ on the Mount of Olives; Fragonard, The Lock; Gericault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19; Velazquez, Portrait of Juan de Pereja; David, A Marat, 1793.
Chiaroscuro can also mean modelling form by the analytical division of light and shadow shapes. Such delicate modelling chiaroscuro gives three dimensions to a form, by subtly grading tones. (Eg Goya, the Naked Maja, p221, Art Treasures; Velazquez, Vermeer p138 World Art, Leonardo )
There are chiaroscuro drawings, described, for example as ‘pen on coloured paper heightened with white’ (eg Watteau). Shadow is created by the use of hatching, washes or stippling. (Eg Fragonard, p219 Art Treasures))
It can also refer to painting in monochrome or two colours, also known as grisaille. (Eg Turner, moonlit landscape).
Modern examples p343WA
World Art, D Mike O’Mahony, Pub Flame Tree Publishing, 2006
Art Treasures of the World, Pub The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd, 1975
Rembrandt, Michael Bockemüle, pub Taschen, 2007
national gallery.org.uk accessed 11 March, 2015
andrewgrahamdixon.com accessed11 March, 2015