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The Drama of Light and Dark: Understanding Chiaroscuro Techniques in Classical Oil Painting

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

What is Chiaroscuro?

Chiaroscuro, derived from the Italian words "chiaro" meaning light and "scuro" meaning dark, is a technique in classical painting that emphasizes the contrast between light and shadow. This technique is commonly used in classical paintings to create a dramatic effect and add depth to the composition. Notable painters who have utilized chiaroscuro in their works include Caravaggio and Rembrandt, whose paintings are renowned for their striking contrasts between light and dark.

The Calling of Saint Matthew By Caravaggio

How to achieve chiaroscuro in classical oil painting:

1. Use Oil Ground Prepared Linen

Achieving chiaroscuro in a painting requires a solid grasp of contrast and a keen awareness of values. However, there are some tricks that can aid in creating this effect more easily.

A crucial technique used by the old masters to achieve chiaroscuro is to work on a toned canvas. They would often apply a toned oil ground on their canvas. By using a mid-tone canvas, they were able to quickly create lifelike paintings and establish strong contrast. The mid-tone provides a relative contrast that makes it easier to achieve the ultimate chiaroscuro effect. Because the mid tones are filled in, the focus can be shifted to the lights and darks.

Working on a white canvas can lead to a lack of contrast in the painting, as there is no proper relative contrast. This can give a false impression of achieving the right contrast due to the absence of darkness. On the other hand, working on a toned canvas is a simple and effective way to increase contrast from the very beginning. With the relative contrast provided by the mid-tone, lights and darks can be painted with greater contrast, resulting in a more impactful painting overall.

Buy high quality oil ground prepared linen here:

2. Use a mid-tone palette and pre-mix high contrast colors:

One technique to achieve chiaroscuro is to pre-mix your colors on a mid-tone palette. This allows you to have the desired level of contrast already established before you begin painting. By relying less on blending colors on the canvas, you can maintain a high level of contrast throughout the painting process. The mid-tone palette also influences the overall tone of the painting, pushing it towards a darker and warmer appearance. This is particularly effective when working with a warm mid-tone palette, which can result in a painting with deeper shadows and brighter highlights.

What's The Point Of Using A Colored Palette?

Via @nic.thurman on Instagram

3. Study the Masters for Inspiration and Guidance:

If you are struggling to achieve the desired colors or contrast in your painting, take a cue from the great masters. The best way to achieve the same effects and chiaroscuro as them is to learn from them. Look for references of similar figures or scenes and use them as a guide. There are countless resources available for finding master references, so you have no excuse not to use them.

You can closely examine the work of the masters to understand how they achieved certain effects, such as the use of mid tones in Rembrandt's portraits. By studying and copying the colors, you can match them and place them on your canvas precisely where they should be. This may seem like a painstaking process at first, but every brushstroke you make in this way will be more informative than aimlessly blending colors on your canvas.

Remember, the masters have already done the hard work of figuring out what works and what doesn't, so learn from them and let their expertise guide you.

Shadows Are Not Black

Via @nic.thurman on Instagram

4. Keep master contrast on your palette

One simple trick is to keep certain colors on your palette at all times. Look at a master painting and find the crucial colors that are being used. Copy those colors in a way that you will always keep them on your palette. You can even mix them in specific positions on your palette and let them dry there. That way you will always have those colors to copy like swatches for when you mix a new palette. You could even make swatches or a color board with all of the crucial colors that are being used.

Shadows Are Full Of Color

Via @nic.thurman on Instagram

5. Build up light gradually:

One effective way to create chiaroscuro in your painting is by gradually building up the lights. This technique involves starting with a dark base and gradually layering on lighter tones to create a sense of depth and dimension in your painting. To start, you will need to choose a dark base tone for your canvas. This can be achieved by using a toned ground, as mentioned earlier.

Begin by mixing a slightly lighter tone than your base color and apply it to the areas of your subject that you want to highlight. Use a light touch with your brush, as you don't want to completely cover up the dark base layer. Instead, allow some of the dark to show through in order to create a sense of depth.

As you continue to build up the lights, mix progressively lighter tones and apply them to smaller and smaller areas of your subject. You can also use various techniques such as dry brushing, scumbling, or glazing to add texture and depth to your painting.

By gradually building up the lights in this way, you will create a strong sense of contrast between the light and dark areas of your painting, which is the essence of chiaroscuro. This technique requires patience and a keen eye for values and contrast, but with practice, you can achieve stunning results that will give your paintings a sense of realism and depth.

Why use chiaroscuro?

Chiaroscuro is an essential technique in painting, used to create the illusion of three-dimensional space and depth on a two-dimensional surface. By utilizing a dark background and high contrast, the figures in your painting can appear more lifelike and dynamic, drawing the viewer into the scene. The subtle gradations of light and shadow created through chiaroscuro can add an extra layer of depth and texture to a painting, making it more visually engaging and emotionally evocative. Renowned masters such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio are celebrated for their use of chiaroscuro, which adds a sense of realism and drama to their works. With practice and persistence you can use it to enhance the liveliness of your paintings too.

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