The paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio are known for their mastery of brightness and contrast in portraiture or scenery. Their influence on the visual arts has extended even to photography. In this capsule lesson, we tackle the principle of chiaroscuro, a technique used by the Renaissance artists to master light and shadow.
From Italian art, with love
The word is an Italian term literally meaning light-dark. The National Gallery of London explains chiaroscuro further: “In paintings, the description refers to clear tonal contrasts which are often used to suggest the volume and modelling of the subjects depicted.”
Elements of chiaro e scuro
Chiaroscuro, the marriage of light and shadow, is primarily used to emphasize details for dramatic effect. It consists of bright light and bold contrasts, hence balance. In Renaissance painting, the technique is used to master human anatomy, formation and structure. The art will often have a heavily darkened background, sometimes reaching out to the darker parts of the subject. Most of the time only the subject is being touched by light.
Chiaroscuro in analogue photography
Take note that chiaroscuro is not only applied to black and white, but also in color.
Photography benefited greatly from the technique, especially in portraiture. Chiaroscuro is also called “Rembrandt lighting” because the photographer mimics the lighting style of Rembrandt.
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