Chiaroscuro is a moody and dramatic lighting style. It has been a style darling through more than 400 years of art history. The Baroque painters loved it. 20th Century cinematographers loved it. And modern photographers still love it. Let’s take a look at what all the fuss is about.

What is Chiaroscuro?

The Meaning of Chiaroscuro

‘Chiaroscuro’ is Italian and means light (chiaro) and dark (scuro). The French call it ‘clair-obscur’. However, outside France the style is known as ‘chiaroscuro’, so we’ll stick with that. Now we know what it means, but what does it look like?

What Does Chiaroscuro Look Like?

Even if you didn’t know the term ‘chiaroscuro’ beforehand, you can probably recognize it, when you see it. It is the style favoured by Old Masters such as e.g. Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Think ‘The Girl With the Pearl Earring’.

What characterizes chiaroscuro is a strong contrast between light and shadow. Select parts of the image are lit and the rest is encapsulated in darkness. In that way the light in co-operation with the framing darkness focuses the attention of the viewer. As a result your eyes are drawn to where the light falls.

The magic in chiaroscuro lies in the tension between light and darkness, in addition to the tension between light and what is lit.

It’s a duet of light and shadow. A tango between subject and light in portraits, between object and light in still lifes.

The Origins of Chiaroscuro

It all started in the Baroque period in Italy in the late 16th and the 17th Century. Up until then the term ‘chiaroscuro’ had been used about the technique in drawing and painting where highlights and shadows are applied to the image in order to suggest 3D volume. But light and shadow were in for a serious overhaul.

Chiaroscuro á la Caravaggio

The painter Caravaggio took the use of light and shadow a step further. He turned up the volume for both light and darkness. Turned it up loud. Very loud! The shadows were darkened to a degree where they were sometimes pitch black. And the light in his paintings was bright as a spotlight. Often his images contained a shaft of bright light lighting up a select part of an otherwise dark space. Light and shadow were no longer just used for their sculpting qualities. The extreme contrast between light and shadow had become a style. Chiaroscuro, as we know it, had been born.

The shadows were darkened to a degree where they were sometimes pitch black. And the light in Caravaggio’s paintings was bright as a spotlight.

High contrast chiaroscuro light.
‘Saint Jerome Writing’, Caravaggio (1605-06).

Caravaggio’s Legacy in Painting

Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow has been hugely influential. He has inspired many old master painters, particularly in The Netherlands and in Spain. A group of Dutch painters, now known as “The Utrecht Caravaggisti”, saw his works on a trip to Italy and were very inspired. Therefore they brought the inspiration from Caravaggio home to the Netherlands, where it spread. This inspiration is seen in the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, as well as in the still lifes of The Dutch Golden Age. In Spain Caravaggio has inspired prominent painters such as Velazquez, de Zurbarán and Goya.

Chiaroscuro in Cinema

German Expressionism & Film Noir

The legacy from Caravaggio is not only seen in painting. He has inspired artist in all visual arts for centuries. 320 years after Caravaggio turned chiaroscuro into a style with his paintings, his influence became prominent in the relatively new art form, cinema. 2 cinematic styles, German Expressionism in the 1920s and Film Noir in the 1940s, are both in direct lineage from Caravaggio.

The Dark Side

The high contrast between shadow and light is particularly well-suited to black/white cinematography. Likewise is the dark and dramatic style also well-suited for exploring the dark side of human nature and society. This was often the case in the films of German Expressionism and Film Noir.


The shadows function not only as a stylistic trait. They also add a natural sense of drama to the narrative. Because what lurks in the shadows? Only the lit parts are visible. Anything could hide in the shadows. Cast shadows are also very effectful. Often you will see a cast shadow from something or someone off-screen. This adds suspense, sometimes even horror. Silhouettes work in the same way. Take a look at the stills (image 1+2) from Nosferatu (1922) and Edward Scissorhand (1990), respectively. Both images exude horror and suspense and the parallel and kinship between the two films is obvious. Tim Burton is clearly inspired by ‘Nosferatu’ and references it in this shot.

Modern Uses of Chiarocsuro

As seen in the comparison between Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) and Tim Burton’s ‘Edward Scissorhand’ (1990), the use of chiaroscuro in modern times has in no way died out. Many film directors and cinematographers have a soft spot for chiaroscuro. Therefore still to this day, chiaroscuro remains a popular and effectful lighting technique, both in b/w and in colour.

When chiaroscuro is used today it is sometimes used to reference art history (as seen in Edwards Scissorhand). Other times it is used simply to add atmosphere, drama and an artistic quality to a film. Either way, chiaroscuro is always effectful.

Chiaroscuro in Photography

Painting with Light

Photography in its essence is painting with light. Where the painter uses paint to create images with, the photographer uses light. The painter uses different colours and shades to create the illusion of light and shadow in the painting. The photographer, as well as the cinematographer, only use light.

Low Key vs. High Key Lighting

In photography as well as in cinematography there are two main styles of lighting, low key lighting and high key lighting. Both can be achieved by using either natural light or artificial light.

High Key Lighting

Reduces shadows, so there is a low contrast between highlights and shadows.

multiple light sources
→ diffused light

» Bright and happy images

Low Key Lighting

Welcomes all types of shadows. There is a high contrast between highlights and shadows.

1 light source
→ directional light

» Dark and moody images

How Do You Create the Chiaroscuro Effect?

In order to achieve the chiaroscuro effect with high contrast between light and shadow in photography and cinematography, you have to use low key lighting.

Using a single light source give the directional light that is such an integral element of the style. Without that there would be no shadows. And without shadows, there would be no chiaroscuro.

Moreover, in addition to creating the chiaroscuro effect as you shoot your image, you can also enhance the chiaroscuro look when you edit your image.

Why I Love Chiaroscuro

Maybe it’s because I’m a moody soul. Maybe it’s because I’m a drama queen. Who knows?

What I do know is, that the moody atmosphere in chiaroscuro get’s me every time. It’s powerful. It packs a punch. And I’m a sucker for it!

High key lighting can be beautiful, but it doesn’t give me the emotional response that I get from low key chiaroscuro lighting.That’s why I keep returning to the Dutch Golden Age painters for inspiration – both for portraits and for still lifes.

See my chiaroscuro still lifes
See my Chiaroscuro portraits
See a collection of chiaroscuro images

What are your thoughts and feelings about chiaroscuro? I’d love to hear.

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