“chiaroscuro” (from the Italian for “light-dark”; or the French “clair-obscur”) describes the prominent contrast of light and shade in a painting, drawing or print. The primary skill displayed here is in the management of shadows to create the illusion of three-dimensional forms.
“The point is, solidity of form is only detectable in the presence of light”. For example, the modelling of the human form by 16th and 17th century artists such as Tintoretto (Venetian School), Caravaggio (Italian Baroque School) and Rubens (Flemish School), displays volume and a three-dimensional appearance through the use of this technique. [primary source: www.visual-arts-cork.com]
solidity of form
Caravaggio, in particular, is associated with “tenebrism” (from the Italian word “tenebroso” meaning dark or murky), a stylistic compositional technique that is characterised by deep shadows and a distinct contrast between light and dark areas with some areas of the painting kept completely black, allowing one or more areas to be strongly illuminated – usually from a single source of light.
Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus” is said to display elements of both 3D-style “chiaroscuro” and dramatic “tenebrist” style lighting:
[Tintoretto www.jacopotintoretto.org] [Caravaggio www.caravaggio-foundation.org] [Rubens www.peterpaulrubens.org]
This continuing interest in depicting form and volume using dark and light continued in the 18th century with one of the key proponents of artistic endeavour during the age of enlightenment and the industrial revolution in Britain, Joseph Wright of Derby.
“A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in the Place of the Sun” by Joseph Wright, oil on canvas, was exhibited in London in 1766 and shows the prevalent interest of the age in all things scientific, including the effects of artificial light. Wright’s paintings of the period reflect the growing interest in matters scientific which began with the arrival of modern chemistry a century before, whilst not ignoring the traditions of more medieval interests and practices such as alchemy and numerology.
I recently came across the work of Devon based artist Robert Lenkiewicz, in particular his painting “Night Watch” [Source: http://robertlenkiewicz.com].
Inspired by the candlelit studies of Rembrandt, Lenkiewicz depicts a scene of ‘players’ involved in the 20th century commitment to social care and support of the disadvantaged – a scene of melancholy and contemplation, perhaps even some anger at society’s ongoing unpredictable treatment of those vulnerable in our society. The composition and use of light and dark mirror Rembrandt’s original picture.
Rembrandt’s “The Nightwatch” [Source: www.rembrandtpainting.net] shows mostly military men, depicting a prevailing interest of his times. It is interesting to see the ongoing legacy of understanding about the power of the “chiaroscuro” technique in visual art as seen in Lenkiewicz’s reworking of the “Night Watch”.