Main Artistic Contributors:


○ Éugene Delacroix,

Leonardo da Vinci,

○ Ugo da Carpi,


○ Johannes Vermeer,


○ Goya.

Key Paintings:

Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci,

○ Diogenes, by Ugo da Carpi,

○ Judith and Holofernes, by Caravaggio,

The Jewish Bride, by Rembrandt,

○ Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer,

○ The Nightmare, by Fuseli,

○ The Third of May, by Goya,

○ Liberty Leading the People, Delacroix.

brief summary

Derived from the Italian, Chiaroscuro, which literally means ‘light-dark’ (chiaro being light, and scuro dark) is a technique emerged in the Renaissance that uses bold contrasts between light and dark in the composition, modelling light usually as a means to enhance the volume of forms. This technique was greatly developed, explored and mastered by Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Chiaroscuro can be seen in drawings, paintings and printmaking, but in more recent times it can also be seen being applied to photography and cinematography.

general description

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).


The technique implies specific ways of modelling the form. In drawing, the effect is achieved by using a dark medium and a white highlight over a coloured paper. While in the more complex method of chiaroscuro woodcuts, the effect is created by printing with different blocks with different colours (known as coloured woodcuts), with additional effects of dotting, washes and stipple, enhancing the desired effect. In both, the modelling of the light and dark was established through the application of hatching (shading using closely gathered parallel lines).

Thought to have been first invented by Lucas Cranach the Elder in Germany, between 1508 and 1509, the Chiaroscuro Woodcuts consist in printing images through the use of two blocks with different colours, initially (after that more blocks were used). Before this, there are records of rudimentary techniques resembling this one, however not as successful. There is not a consensus on the first examples, while Vasari indicates it appeared before Ugo da Carpi (1480-1523), others suggest it first emerges around 1516, and others point to the Triumph of Julius Caesar (c. 1470-1500), by Andrea Mantegna to be the first example. Two different methods then emerged, in German territories the woodcuts use a keyblock tinted with black in addition to the tone block of other colours, while in Italy, no keyblocks were used.

As the technical term refers to the modelling of volume through contrasts of dark and light, the term is now employed in cinematography to refer to high contrast lighting scenes. In photography it is often associated with the idea of “Rembrandt’s lighting”, paying tribute to the technique and to Rembrandt’s specific approach to it.

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key works

Artist: Rembrandt
Title: The Jewish Bride
Date: c. 1665-1669
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 121.5 x 166.5 cm
Location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Holland

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Title: Mona Lisa
Date: c. 1503-1506
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 77 x 53 cm
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Artist: Caravaggio
Title: Judith and Holofernes
Date: c. 1598-1599
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 145 x 195 cm
Location: Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy

Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Title: Girl with the Pearl Earring
Date: c. 1665
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 46.5 x 40 cm
Location: The Mauritshuis, Amsterdam, Holland

Artist: Eugène Delacroix
Title: Liberty Leading the People
Date: 1830
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 260 x 325 cm
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Artist: Andrea Mantegna
Title: The Senators (N. 10, Triumphs of Caesar)
Date: c. 1486-1505
Medium: Woodcut
Size: Unknown
Location: Albertina, Vienna, Austria

Artist: Henry Fuseli
Title: The Nightmare
Date: 1781
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 101.6cm x 127cm
Location: Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Artist: Francisco de Goya
Title: The Third of May 1808
Date: 1814
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 266 x 345 cm
Location: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Artist: Diogenes
Title: Ugo da Carpi after Parmigianino
Date: c. 1527
Medium: Chiaroscuro woodcut printed from four blocks: brown line block and three tone blocks in brown and green on laid paper
Size: 47.5 x 34.6 cm
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA