• Justin Cooke

Chiaroscuro: an introduction.

Chiaroscuro : Light and Dark

Chiaroscuro is a term we use for the use of light and dark to show the form of things and to create a mood.

For now, let’s consider using it to make things look solid and fully three dimensional.

There are traditionally five elements to chiaroscuro.

Half tone. (Sometimes known simply as “light”, as it represents the lighter tones).

Core shadow.

Cast shadow.


Reflected light.

Let’s see how it works. I will draw a solid shape using chiaroscuro using the five elements above and we’ll see if it looks fully three dimensional. I’ll try a sphere, so there are no straight edges.

Here I have circle shape. It doesn’t look like a sphere it looks flat.

If I imagine a main light source, say top left, I can put half my circle in shadow. That should help. We will be using a couple of different types of shadow, so this one we will call “core shadow”. Core shadows on rounded forms like this (and the human figure incidentally) always have soft edges.

So now I have two halves of my sphere. The shaded side is the core shadow; the side nearest the light is the half tone. You could think of it as a lighter side and a darker side. If I make my background darker behind the light side, that should help the light side show up a bit better.

I can now add my cast shadow, which should help. This is the second type of shadow we will use. Cast shadows are darker than core shadows and have sharp edges.

It’s getting there but we can do better. Let’s add the highlight. Highlights move as you move around your subject; shadows stay put which seems a little odd at first. The only way to move the shadow is to move the light source (be warned this could happen without your knowledge if you are using sunlight and are taking a few hours to make a drawing).

Now, it’s beginning to look three dimensional but there is still something not quite right. There is something missing…and it is the reflected light. I’ll put that in.

The reflected light helps separate the core shadow from the cast shadow but it is also a key part of any chiaroscuro painting or drawing.

I am often asked; “Where does the reflected light come from?” The answer is that not all the light illuminating the subject comes directly from the main light source; there are other light sources too. Every surface reflects some light and some of this finds its way onto our subject, it may be very feint but it will still show up in the dark shadows where the direct light from the main source cannot reach.

A particularly noticeable example of this can be seen in many portraits where light is reflected off the shoulders of a sitter and illuminates the skin under the jaw. Here you can see it on a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. This painting is known as, Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani). It is in the collection of the Czartoryski Museum, Karkow, Poland.

The five elements of chiaroscuro

Once you start to look for them you can pretty much see them everywhere.

If you are doing a painting of some subject, say a still life, portrait, even a landscape; you will need to look for each of these five elements not just in the subject in front of you, but in your painting too. And this is probably the best way to use a list like this; that is as a checking device. I will explain below.

If you look at your painting or drawing and something doesn’t seem quite right about it. There are several things you can check. You could check to see if your drawing is accurate– are things placed where they should be in relation to each other and are they the right proportion, (is one eye higher than the other…that sort of thing). But you could also check the chiaroscuro.

It is one of those things about painting and drawing; that it is perhaps best not to think too deeply about rules while you are working. It slows you down and can make you hesitate. With practice you will work instinctively, without constantly being aware of all those things you have learned.

Having said that, imagine you are looking at a troublesome drawing. Just count through the five elements of chiaroscuro listed above. Take them one at a time and check all the parts of the painting where you would expect them to be. Do you have all the core shadows, highlights and cast shadows. What about the reflected light? (There is often some where the core shadow meets the cast shadow). The chances are that one of these is missing and putting it in will correct the picture. It is quite often the reflected light by the way.

Look hard to find these things in your subject, (it is not always easy to spot them all) then look hard to find them in your drawing; if it’s not in the drawing but it is in the subject, put it in.

So you can see; it’s a checking device as much as anything. That list of five…it’s a safety net.

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