It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures. Further specialized uses of the term include chiaroscuro woodcut for coloured woodcuts printed with different blocks, each using a different coloured ink; and chiaroscuro drawing for drawings on coloured paper in a dark medium with white highlighting. The underlying principle is that solidity of form is best achieved by the light falling against it. Artists known for developing the technique include Leonardo da Vinci , Caravaggio and Rembrandt. It is a mainstay of black and white and low-key photography. It is one of the modes of painting colour in Renaissance art alongside cangiante , sfumato and unione. The term chiaroscuro originated during the Renaissance as drawing on coloured paper, where the artist worked from the paper's base tone toward light using white gouache , and toward dark using ink, bodycolour or watercolour. Such works are called " chiaroscuro drawings ", but may only be described in modern museum terminology by such formulae as "pen on prepared paper, heightened with white bodycolour".
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Bonus Download: New to painting? Start with my free Beginner's Guide to Painting. Chiaroscuro refers to the use of light and dark to create the illusion of three-dimensional volume on a flat surface. The term translates to "light-dark"; chiaro meaning bright or clear and scuro meaning dark or obscure.
Some evidence exists that ancient Greek and Roman artists used chiaroscuro effects, but in European painting the technique was first brought to its full potential by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 15th century in such paintings as his Adoration of the Magi Thereafter, chiaroscuro became a primary technique for many painters, and by the late 17th century the term was routinely used to describe any painting, drawing , or print that depended for its effect on an extensive gradation of light and darkness. In its most dramatic form—as in the works of those Italian artists of the 17th century who came under the influence of Caravaggio —it was known as tenebrismo , or tenebrism. Caravaggio and his followers used a harsh, dramatic light to isolate their figures and heighten their emotional tension. Another outstanding master of chiaroscuro was Rembrandt , who used it with remarkable psychological effect in his paintings, drawings, and etchings. The delicacy and lightness of 18th-century Rococo painting represents a rejection of this dramatic use of chiaroscuro, but the technique again became popular with artists of the Romantic period, who relied upon it to create the emotive effects they considered essential to their art. In the graphic arts , the term chiaroscuro refers to a particular technique for making a woodcut print in which effects of light and shade are produced by printing each tone from a different wood block. The technique was first used in woodcuts in Italy in the 16th century, probably by the printmaker Ugo da Carpi.
To save this word, you'll need to log in. Send us feedback. See more words from the same year From the Editors at Merriam-Webster. Accessed 16 Aug. More from Merriam-Webster on chiaroscuro Britannica.