Chiaroscuro in painting, is the use of use of strong contrasts between light and dark. The term is often used by Artists and art historians alike to describe the use of light and dark contrast to achieve a sense of volume in a painting. It is a bold lighting contrast that affects the entire composition. However, the term can also be extended to describing lighting in photography and cinema.
Artists noted for developing the chiaroscuro technique are Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Vermeer. The underlying principle of the chiaroscuro technique is that solidity of form is best achieved by light falling against it.
How to apply Chiaroscuro to your own Paintings?
If you want to create a painting with a strong contrast between light and dark then you must create a proper set up. Whatever you are painting – whether an individual or still life – it is all about the lighting. You want to create a focused stream of light with plenty of shadow to attain a clear contrast.
Setting up a Chiaroscuro still life
If you’re looking for a unique approach to how to paint a still life, an easy and practical way to set up a still life with ‘chiaroscuro’ lighting is to find yourself a cardboard box with an open front. You can grab yourself a used box or one that is lying around yourself. Cut it open so that light can come in. If you want to go all out then I suggest that you paint the inside of your box. However, if you do paint, just make sure that it is a darker color. I simply pinned up some pieces of fabric inside the box to create a dark background.
Further, you will want to make a cut on the side of your box so as to create a small opening for light to come in. In the image below you will notice the small window I cutout so as to let light into the box. The small hole on the side lets in a controlled amount. Having just a small amount of light come in allows there to be a lot of shadows which will create a dramatic contrast.
For a step by step still life painting tutorial check out How to Paint a Still Life.
How to set up the lighting for a Chiaroscuro Still Life
Light is the most important parts to a chiaroscuro painting as setting up proper lighting for your painting is essential. However, your set up will depend on what your studio set up allows. Natural light is always best, but if your studio is in a basement or garage – you can try to get lamps that are ‘daylight’ lamps. This will not be perfect but will be a good substitute.
Whatever your source of light is – whether from a window or electric light – try to have only one light source coming from one direction. So, if you have two different windows in your studio cover one of the windows up with a dark cloth or curtain. The more focused your light source the better.
As an example, I have two windows in my studio. Once faces north the other faces east. I cover up my east facing window and only use the light source from my north facing window. If I have two directions of light shining onto my still life I won’t have strong cast shadows and the dramatic light/ dark effect will be weakened.
If using the cutout box as shown above to place a still life in. Let the cutout window face your light source so that light can illuminate your setup. Having a small cutout window in your box helps to focus your light more and create an even more dramatic light/ dark effect.
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Real Life Example of using the Box Cutout Method
I am not just telling you about this box cut out method for fun. I use it myself and it works!
Above is a recent still life painting of mine that I painted from a set up that I created inside the same cutout box as pictured at the beginning of this article. If I wanted to I could have made the set up so that there would have been an even starker light/ dark difference. However, I wanted the light distribution to be a little more subtle. Maybe next time I will go all out and make a very dramatic light/ dark painting! 😉
Here are a couple real life examples of both modern and past painters who use this chiaroscuro method!
Here is a work by contemporary American painter Kathleen Speranza. She paints beautiful floral still life works that are often done in a chiaroscuro style like the painting pictured above. To achieve the strong light/ dark effect she uses the cutout box described above for her set ups.
Here is another still life example of a chiaroscuro painting by the artist Bruce Kurland. The painting exhibits extreme darks as well as light values. The light on the fruit is set in direct contrast with the dark black background.
Caravaggio is perhaps one of the most famous Chiaroscuro painters. The dramatic effect of using deep darks with bright light cutting through is one of his hallmarks. Above is his work ‘The Calling of St. Matthew’. Notice how there is just one light source in this painting – coming in from the upper right side of the painting.
Painting the figure in Chiaroscuro
Now that we covered how to paint your own Chiaroscuro still life we will cover what that looks like for painting the figure/ portrait. The process is pretty much identical except for the fact that it is harder to fit a person into a box! You could technically construct a box to fit someone in, but it is not a very practical route.
When painting an individual in Chiaroscuro style make sure that you have only ONE light source (just like when painting a still life). Pull the blinds over any other windows that are in your studio. I would also go so far as to cover up part of the window you will be using. It is remarkable the results one gets from having a small singular light source. You can use blankets or dark opaque paper to cover up a part of your window. Doing so will help to create a dramatic lighting effect as you will have a strong darker shadows. If you have a flood of light coming in then you will get just that – a flood of light.
Also, try to place your model not too close to the light source. Placing your model a little further away from the light source will help to create a more dramatic lighting effect.
Chiaroscuro is an incredible way to explore the world of light. You will learn a lot about value and tone when encountering a wide spectrum of light and dark. I hope you will have fun with these chiaroscuro painting tips and that they will prove helpful to you.
Caravaggio is the quintessential chiaroscuro painter. Discover Caravaggio’s work in this beautiful book of his paintings published by Taschen.