Sunday, February 8, 2009


chiaroscuro [kee-ahr-uh-SKYOOR-oh]
adj. the distribution of light and shade in a picture; in painting, the use of deep variations in and subtle gradations of light and shade, especially to enhance the delineation of character and for general dramatic effect.

[Italian chiaro bright + oscuro dark, from Latin obscūrus + clārus]

I can't think of a painting that I love which does not, in some way, play with light and dark and shades for dramatic effect. For my tastes, a painter who does not incorporate chiaroscuro into his work is a lesser craftsman, if a craftsman at all.

Although the word chiaroscuro is ordinarily used in reference to classical art, the strong contrast of light and shade is seen in photography and in everyday occurences where a limited light source only partially illuminates what you are looking at.

Here's an example of using chiaroscuro in common discourse, from Tom Wolfe's novel, A Man in Full, where we hear the thoughts of a 47-year-old banker, debating in his mind whether the 53-year-old woman he is dating, who had been dumped by her 60-year-old husband for a new trophy wife, is beautiful enough for him:
The light from the stage created soft, indistinct highlights, which made her look roundish, as if she were made of ice cream. But that was just the play of light and shadow, the distortions of chiaroscuro.

No comments: