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Chiaroscuro: Renaissance Painting Mode


“Chiaroscuro is the reproduction of the effects of light and shade and their mutual affect on

each other.  Artists use artistic arrangement of these deep variations of values for dramatic

and pronounced effects that cause subjects to move forward.  Atmospheric perspective,

on the other hand, is a phasing out of values and refers to the softening and increasing

paleness of colors, form and shadows as subjects move beyond the background

into the distance or what we refer to as the far ground.”  O. M. Braida, page 17

Ten Steps—A Course in Botanical Art & Illustration-Volume 1  by OM Braida ©2002

Amaryllis, sp. for New York State Museum

The term “Chiaroscuro” is Italian for light and dark.  In art this refers to strong contrasts between light and dark as applied to a two-dimensional surface.  The effect of these strong contrasts creates shadows, but even more important is the light, which once revealed in such contrast it forces the eye to follow a particular direction, or to view a particular focal point. With lights and darks distributed in this manner, the viewer’s eye is lead through the picture plane.  As the light and dark surround the subjects the illusion of depth is all the more enhanced and the resulting image is seen as three-dimensional. 

Although, no paintings from the ancient Greeks survives, use of this technique is ascribed to the Athenian painter, Apollodoros, in fifth century BC.  During the Renaissance, its use surfaced again and is seen as drawings on colored paper, where the artist worked from the paper’s base tone toward light using white, and toward dark using ink or watercolor.  Monochromatic or two-tone Chiaroscuro drawings (also known by the French terms, Grisaille, Brunaille, or Verdaille) and Chiaroscuro woodcuts are examples of the chiaroscuro technique. ChiascuroWoodcut

“Perspective is a technique in art that allows us to represent three-dimensional objects

and space on a flat surface or plane. And as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) tells us,

‘Perspective is the rein and rudder of painting.’” O.M. Braida 2002

Chiaroscuro is one of the four primary techniques of Renaissance painting and one that Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564), Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), made important use of.  

In Leonardo’s “Treatise on Painting” he states that, “The knowledge of the outline is of most consequence, and yet may be acquired to great certainty by dint of study; as the outlines of the human figure, particularly those which do not bend, are invariably the same.  But the knowledge of the situation, quality , and quantity of shadows, being infinite, requires the most extensive study.”  To further emphasis which is more important, Shadows or Outlines, he continues by saying, “It requires much more observation and study to arrive at perfection in the shadowing of a picture, than in merely drawing the lines of it.  The proof of this is, that the lines may be traced upon a veil or a flat glass placed between the ye and the object to be imitated.  But that cannot be of any use in shadowing, on account of the infinite gradation of shades, and the blending of them, which does not allow of any precise termination; and most frequently they are confused, as will be demonstrated in another place.


Strong chiaroscuro became a popular effect during the sixteenth century in Mannerism and Baroque art.  The use of dark subjects dramatically lit by a shaft of light from a single source, was a compositional device developed by several artists, including Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573–1610), whose dramatic use of chiaroscuro developed the style referred to as tenebrism (extreme use of light and dark values with a somewhat theatrical approach).


Values (lights and darks) decide placement. They tell the viewer what’s what and where’s where. Because the eye is phototropic (sees light first), the image with the lightest value (or the most light) is seen first. Light values come forward when juxtaposed with dark values all the more when their contrast is exaggerated.  Dark values recede when juxtaposed with dark values all the more when their contrast is minimized. When you want objects to fade out into the far ground, their value is very light, but they have diminishing form and detail.  There is no extreme value contrast and, therefore, appear as if they are fading away.  As Leonardo says, “…the farther away the object is, the bluer it gets.”

Vol01 Pg17 Placement


The effect of the illusions one can create with this technique is not only in drawing or paintings.  I have seen this technique used by Franco Zeffirelli (b.1923), an Italian director of films who is also known as a major director of opera productions.  In 1997, I attended an opera production of Turandot, with Luciano Pavarotti and Jane Eaglen.  Zeffirelli ultra-lavish ornate production of Puccini’s Turandot presents a set whose focal point sits deep on the stage.  The light and dark contrasts have the audience looking deep into the middle – all eyes on the soprano.  Surrounding this vortex of light is the contrasting bodies of the cast who, dressed in muted dark costumes, create a shadow under the feet of its star.  Just another example of how “Chiaroscuro” creates emphasis.  You can view how the stage looks at this link:

Happy New Year to all.

God bless. OM



DaVinci, Leonardo.  “A Treatise on Painting.”  Dover Publications. 2005

Braida-Chiusano, Olivia.  “Ten Steps – A Course in Botanical Art & Illustration – Volume 1”  OM Art Publications2002

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