Chiaroscuro follows the basic idea that the visual effects of a solid form (the modelling of a form) are best conveyed two dimensionally to the eye, by the use of light falling on it in a specific given direction and intensity. Value gradations (tonal aspects) are calculated and distributed according to two main areas: the light masses and the shadow areas, using shadow shapes to better describe the solidity of form. Contemporary uses of the technical term, refers to the sense of volume and tri-dimensionality given to the shapes through the application of light contrasts.
Referred to by Ancient Greeks, as “shadow-painting”, the technique is believed to have been invented by Apollodoros, the notorious Athenian painter of the fifth century BC. Although not many of these paintings exist, the technique can be seen in various other creations of the time, including the notorious Stag Hunt Mosaic. Known to have been used throughout the Byzantine empire and in the Middle Ages, in both painting and manuscript illuminations, however in the rudimentary form of skiagraphia (the application of a linear pattern in brown, black or white over a solid colour plane). The term Chiaroscuro, as we now know it, is believed to have emerged in the Renaissance, referring to drawing on coloured middle value paper, using gouache to bring the tones up towards the light, and dark inks or watercolor, to define the darks. In the High Renaissance, it is one of four techniques employed in painting (the others being: cangiante, sfumato and unione). It was also greatly used in the Mannerism and Baroque art, during the sixteenth century, specially in the works of Ugo da Carpi (c. 1455 – c. 1523), Giovanni Baglione (1566–1643), and especially Caravaggio (1571–1610). Caravaggio exponential development of the technique led to the creation of a form of Chiaroscuro, a dramatic style entitled tenebrism, which influenced many other artists. In a more contemporary context, the term has broadened its meaning to encompass all strong contrasts of light and dark, beyond the spectrums of painting and drawing.
The Mona Lisa (c. 1503-1506) by Leonardo da Vinci, is one of the greatest examples of the mastery of the chiaroscuro technique, which he had been perfecting since about 1490. Around the same time, Ugo da Carpi deals with the woodcut technique, with Diogenes (c. 1527) being one of his most acclaimed work showcasing the artists mastery of the technique; the contrast was achieved by the blocks tinted in dark tones, adding a great three-dimensionality to the work which was absent in Parmigianino’s original drawing (Carpi’s fundamental reference). By the end of the 16th century, Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes (c. 1598-1599) exalts a sensational theatricality carried through by his aggressive take on the chiaroscuro technique. In the 17th century Rembrandt and Vermeer became masters of chiaroscuro, much influenced by Caravaggio’s take on it. In The Jewish Bride (c. 1665-1669) by Rembrandt, the use of this particular technique conveys volume and three-dimensionality to the details, especially visible in the jewelry, and in the Girl with the Pearl Earring (c. 1665) by Johannes Vermeer, the “Master of Light”, the play of light on the Girl’s cheek, eyelids, and lips, against the soft shadows on her flesh and the deep black background showcases his very individual style and particular unique take on the technique. Later in Romanticism, chiaroscuro proved to be an essential feature in painting in order to enhance the dramatic effects of the scenes, which can be seen in Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781), Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (1814) and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830).