Chiaroscuro Paintings: Creating a Lasting Impact

Chiaroscuro painting by caravaggio depicting when christ was being taken in custody

The Renaissance was a time of remarkable development in art and creativity. As one would expect, this time of flamboyant yet austere art style came with some fancy art techniques, such as the Chiaroscuro. Even though Chiaroscuro paintings have been found even in 4th-century BC, they became popular with Leonardo Da Vinci’s work. This technique became so important in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries that it is considered to be a complete art movement rather than just a technique.  

Some of the most important names in the Chiaroscuro movement are Caravaggio, Leonard da Vinci, and Rembrandt. Without much ado, let’s discuss what this technique is and analyze some of the best Chiaroscuro paintings.  

What is Chiaroscuro?

When it comes to lighting, certain areas of a scene are best captured through bright light whereas others are best left in the dark. The meaning of Chiaroscuro is in the word itself. This is an Italian word, where ‘Chiaro’ means brightness or light, whereas ‘Oscuro’ stands for obscure or shadow. It is the arrangement of dark or light in a painting or a photograph that gives it a three-dimensional depth on a two-dimensional medium. At first, painters used this technique only in monochrome pieces. This was probably because it is extremely challenging show lights and shadows in colored works. Depth was shown through slow gradations of ink and gouache on colored media. 

In simple words, any painting where you see a very prominent contrast between light and dark areas uses Chiaroscuro. Leonardo da Vinci expressed his strong views on how art should be created by pointing out an important feature of Chiaroscuro in the following quote-   

“A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black”

Leonardo da Vinci.

Even though da Vinci proposed the idea of Chiaroscuro in the fifteenth century, even he could not master it as well as Caravaggio. All Chiaroscuro artists use light in a way that follows the laws of physics thereby, enhancing realism.  It may be said that the basic premise of this technique is that everything in nature is in the dark until light touches it. 

Best Chiaroscuro Paintings

If I only discuss the very best Chiaruscuro paintings in my opinion, I’d have to list all of Caravaggio’s paintings. To avoid this, let’s discuss the best paintings by some select Chiaruscuro painters from the Renaissance. 

Caravaggio’s Chiaroscuro Paintings

Caravaggio popularized chiaroscuro in the 17th century and added his flair to this art technique. The change Caravaggio made to the traditional technique was the use of a single light source only. This made the contrast between light and shadows exponentially more dramatic. This light source could be some natural light with cool undertones and at times it can be a fire source with warm undertones. 


Caravaggio’s art became so iconic and distinctive that it acquired a separate name, ‘tenebrism’. Tenebrism characteristically consists of pitch dark backgrounds with partially illuminated subjects. The term ‘tenebrism’ means dark and mysterious.

Chiaroscuro painting by Caravaggio jesus calling saint matthew
The Calling of Saint Matthew. Public Domain.

‘The Calling of Saint Matthew’ is perhaps Caravaggio’s most famous painting. The painting is based on a biblical allegory that simply states that Jesus saw saint Matthew at the tax collector’s booth and asked him to be his follower. Matthew accepted and became his disciple. Caravaggio’s painting on the other hand tells the story more dramatically simply through the use of light. From the hesitation on Matthew’s face to the slight glimmer of a halo over Jesus’ head is all part of the artist’s creativity. 

Chiaroscuro painting by caravaggio depicting when christ was being taken in custody
The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio. Public Domain.

Another painting by Caravaggio that gives me literal goosebumps is titled ‘The Taking of Christ’. The painting is beautiful, meaningful, and has great technique but, that’s not the most interesting part. Toward the end of his career, Caravaggio began including real-life characters in his work. In ‘The Taking of Christ’ we see the artist’s self-portrait on the extreme right-hand side. It seems as if he has rushed into the scene, attempting to understand what’s going on. The lantern in his hand is not merely a light source. Caravaggio holding a lantern symbolizes how an artist has the power to bring things to light so that other people can understand events from their perspective. 

Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro had a deep impact on other famous artists like Ribera, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Delacroix, and Courbet Manet, who owe their careers to Caravaggio’s Chiaroscuro. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s Chiaroscuro Paintings

Chiaroscuro painting by Leonardo da Vinci baby jesus with mother mary
Benois Madonna by Leonardo da Vince. Public Domain.

In contrast to Caravaggio’s style, da Vinci’s chiaroscuro used a slightly diffused form of showing light and shadows. In his painting “Benois Madonna”, you will notice that the overall painting is bright. He skillfully uses linseed oil paints to build depth in his paintings. The light wraps around the subjects in a way that creates a realistic three-dimensional space. Thus, da Vinci’s art has a broader range of lights and shadows than Caravaggio’s tenebrism. The contrasts in light and dark are evident but the shades don’t go to the extreme. 

Leonardo da Vinci was a pioneer of the High Renaissance, where the emphasis was on beauty and perfection. Even though Leonardo blends his colors in such a way that the textures of the skin can be felt, they are still quite unrealistic. After looking at Caravaggio’s mastery of skin texture, Leonardo’s effort on textures looks rather unimaginative. The problem here is that the skin is too smooth, and lacks realistic wrinkles and crevices.

Rembrandt’s Chiaroscuro Paintings

The most unique part of Rembrandt’s Chiaroscuro is the incorporation of impasto. Unlike other artists, he played with the physical texture of paint along with the lighting. Using impasto made his subjects actually pop out of the canvas. 

return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. Public Domain.

One of his most remarkable paintings is ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. In this work he uses light in the form of a spotlight, highlighting the most important portions while leaving other things in the dark. The skin texture if viewed closely is not extremely smooth like real skin. The brushstrokes are clearly visible along with a good deal of impasto which has become an important characteristic of Rembrandt’s work. 

Vermeer’s Chiaroscuro Paintings

Lady and her maidservant with a letter’
Lady and Her Maidservant with a Letter by Vermeer. Public Domain.

In Vermeer’s ‘Lady and her maidservant with a letter’, the artist depicts a household scene in dramatic light. Like his other paintings, women are the protagonists in this work as well. Vermeer’s use of chiaroscuro tells a story by giving us only a glimpse of the event. One of the most impressive portions is the drawing is how the fur on the lady’s coat has been given realistic dimension through intricate shadows. The light wraps around the lady and the maid in a way that creates anticipation. Through this anticipation, a viewer can make up a whole subjective narrative about the scene. 

The maid hands a love letter to the lady who seems rather taken aback by the news. The painting is further dramatized by Vermeer’s choice of capturing the moment when the maid is mid-sentence. The light source is on the left, at a ninety-degree angle from the women. The shadows are consistent, not only on the subjects but also in the finer details such as the table cloth and the woman’s exquisite coat. 

The frame is not too overexposed or too underexposed. Vermeer’s control over the lighting makes the illumination in this scene just right.

Summing up 

Since the advent of cinema, the technique of chiaroscuro has been used profusely in movies. With every painting and every movie, you can notice a novel way in which lighting is manipulated. At the beginning of chiaroscuro, the most important portions of a scene were illuminated. Later, lighting became a part of the actor’s personality. For example, the evil people were shown in shadows, obscured in the dark whereas the hero is always depicted in brightness.  

Chiaroscuro evokes a unique feeling through the stark juxtaposition between light and shadows. It almost makes a viewer feel exposed and involved, providing a sense of clarity through which you can step into the actors’ shoes. The viewer immediately gets caught up in the drama as chiaroscuro stirs deep emotions in our hearts.

FAQs– Chiaroscuro Paintings

What is the chiaroscuro painting technique? 

Chiaroscuro painting technique involves a contrasting juxtaposition between the light and shadowy portions of a scene. The term Chiaroscuro is Italian. Where “chiaro” means light or bright and “scuro” means obscure or dark. 

What is an example of chiaroscuro?

All of Caravaggio’s work is an example of chiaroscuro. “The calling of St. Matthew” and “The taking of Christ” are some of the best examples of the chiaroscuro technique in Renaissance art. 

Why do artists use chiaroscuro?

Artists use Chiaroscuro to make their paintings more emotionally moving and to dramatize a picture that they wish to depict. Chiaroscuro may be used skilfully to highlight what is important, what characters are good or evil, and also to shed light on the overall dynamics of the scene. Chiaroscuro is mostly used to give a three-dimensional look to a painting on a two-dimensional plane. 

What is chiaroscuro called today?

Chiaroscuro involves using the contrast between light and shadows to give more depth to an artwork. Today this technique is simply called shading and highlighting. 

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