Talking Points: What is Chiaroscuro?

Text and images to help you explore the idea of Chiaroscuro (light and dark) in art.

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What is Chiaroscuro?

Chiaroscuro is an Italian term which literally means ‘light-dark’. Artists have used it for centuries to help them describe form, and to create atmosphere or mood. 

To appreciate that the artist is using the chiaroscuro technique, squint at the artwork. Half close your eyes and notice how you can now see the light and the dark, but not the mid tones. You can also use this technique to help you see light and dark when looking at a still life, landscape or interior which you are about to draw.

Leonardo da Vinci's Saint John the Baptist (1513-1516)

Leonardo da Vinci‘s Saint John the Baptist (1513-1516)

Strange Flower (Little Sister of the Poor) (1880) by Odilon Redon. Original from the Art Institute of Chicago

Strange Flower (Little Sister of the Poor) (1880) by Odilon Redon. Original from the Art Institute of Chicago

Moonlight, Strandgade 30 1900–1906 Vilhelm Hammershøi

Moonlight, Strandgade 30, Vilhelm Hammershøi 

A Good Pool, Saguenay River (1895) by Winslow Homer. Original from The Clark Art Institute.

A Good Pool, Saguenay River (1895) by Winslow Homer. Original from The Clark Art Institute.

Chiaroscuro by Vituc, Shot with iPhone and Hipstamatic App

Questions to Ask Children

How does emphasising the light and the dark help create mood and atmosphere? 

Can you always tell in which direction the light source is?

Has the artist actually used “black” and “white” or are the light and dark areas different tones of “grey”?

Using Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro replies on you being able to create tonal values on a page which have enough difference between them. For example, you need to be able to create a “dark dark” and a “light light”. 

Depending on the medium you are using, there are different ways of achieving this. For example if you are using graphite (pencil) then you might create dark darks by cross hatching, repeat shading, intense pressure etc etc, and you might create light lights by using the pencil very softly – or even leaving the light of the paper to shine through. If you are using ink, you might like to use your ink undiluted for the dark darks, and diluted for the light lights. 

Take a look at these resources to help you explore Chiaroscuro.

See Three Shapes

Drawing by Torch Light

Graphic Sketches

Drawing Flames

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