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Home » Challenge #2: Getting started in chiaroscuro

Challenge #2: Getting started in chiaroscuro

Sunflowers in chiaroscuro (CC-BY-SA V. Lacroix)

In this new challenge, we shall learn the technique of chiaroscuro. But what is chiaroscuro? When using such a technique?

Lest us Get inspired by the work of the masters and Observe how they produce these effects and how they use it in a composition to guide our gaze. Then let us try to Reproduce the spirit of one painting, and let us then Create!


Our understanding of the world through vision involves interpreting the contrast of brightness, i.e. identifying light and dark areas. When these are finely modulated, when most of the scene is plunged into darkness and some lighter areas allow us to perceive details, this contrast is called “chiaroscuro”.

Mastering chiaroscuro, Rembrandt, “The supper at Emmaus” (oil painting 1629)

We find chiaroscuro in all those paintings, engravings, photos, in which our eyes distinguish, in the middle of dark areas, lighter areas that allow us to apprehend the form, to perceive the surface of objects, figures, or any element of the scene. This process creates depth and a dramatic effect. It is suitable for portraits as well as landscapes and still-life.

The light-dark contrast is maximum when black and white are used; a deep black and bright white. But nothing prevents you from exploiting it also by opposing very light and very dark colors, such as yellows or oranges for light tones and browns, violets or blues for dark tones.

Getting inspired

Among the “classical” painters, Georges de Latour, Rembrandt or Velàsquez are recognized as masters in this field.

Velázquez, “Las Meninas” by (oil 1656-1657)


Rembrandt also used chiaroscuro in his engravings. Although he never practiced it, mezzotint is the most suitable technique for chiaroscuro: it consists of gradually bringing light into the initially black graphic work.

Laurent SCHKOLNYK, “The can”, Mezzotint 2005 (source: wikipedia)
Sylvia Bataille, “Highway 1” (© Courtesy Sylvia Bataille)

Discover on this blog the work of contemporary engravers who have mastered this technique.


Pictorialism was an aesthetic photographic movement born in the later 19th century. The photographers, largely inspired by painting, contributed to the use of chiaroscuro in photography.

Léonard Misonne, “At sunset”, photograph (1901)

Today, the technical term would rather be low-key, reflecting the fact that the photograph is generally under-exposed, even if in reality the very brightly lit parts are correctly exposed by deliberately plunging the dark parts into a well-assumed black.

Brassaï, Paris by night, two photographs taken in the 1930s.

Brassaï’s “Paris by Night” series is a fine example of the use of chiaroscuro for capturing the special city’s atmosphere.

In a more disturbing and contemporary spirit, Gregory Crewson’s work in color provides another example.

Photography © Gregory Crewson


In cinema, chiaroscuro was also used extensively in the great period of black and white cinema, and is still used today. In an interview, Lukasz Zals, the cinematographer of “Cold War”, told how fundamental contrast is in the construction of film.


You have now looked at several sources of inspiration; focus on the works that have spoken to you most, either on a pictorial or emotional level. Look for the bright areas, identify them, look around the scene, admire the details. This habit of identifying light and dark areas will always be useful to you, because it is the basis of the composition. To anchor this habit, when visiting exhibitions, take sketches where you note down the light areas as presented below, and as I did in the introduction to this challenge series.

Blinking your eyes will help you; you will activate mainly your rods, these retinal cells that are only sensitive to clarity. Let us try it on “Las Meninas”.

Light and shadow in “Las Meninas”

Identify the brightest areas on Velàsquez’s Meninas

In this example of Velázquez’s “Meninas”, I have identified a series of areas that are lighter than the whole. In a second step, on a black background, I simply ran a white (digital) pastel over the lighter ones. Afterwards it seemed to me that the painter, situated a little in the background on the left, should also be underlined with pastel, whereas initially I had not noted it.

The light areas drawn in pastel (V. Lacroix digital work on ipad)

Observe as the only information that graphically underlines the light areas is relevant. Am I optimistic believing that this sketch will allow anyone to recognize the painting at first glance, if ever seen before?

Test yourself on other reproductions. Have you identified the bright areas? Validate by taking a black and white photo. The lighter areas will then appear more clearly. If you want even better, use the “curve” tool of any digital photo software; it will allow you to transform the photo into a binary image where only black and white is present.


In another exercise, in color this time, I tried to reproduce in gouache, the spirit of the “man with the golden helmet” initially attributed to Rembrandt (attribution contested today). See how the reproductions available on the internet differ. The reproduction that I have is situated between these two extremes.

Different reproductions of the Man with the Golden Helmet (Rembrandt circle) and the gouache catching the chiaroscuro spirit.

On a sheet of black paper I placed a few pencil markers by offsetting them from a reproduction, the idea being to concentrate on the light, putting aside geometry, i.e. the sizes and positions of the different elements of the painting.

Here, for the light tones, I wanted yellow. Lemon yellow (Talens 205) seemed too cold (i.e. too green) to capture the golden luster, so I mixed it with a hint of magenta (Talens 397), in varying quantities depending on the location, to produce these different shades of yellow-orange. Here I did not use water: too diluted, the yellow gouache on the black would appear greenish. For the darker areas, I put a hint of violet in the yellow-orange, creating a warm brown. Why not a touch of black in the yellow? It would have produced a khaki less suited to the rendering I wanted.

If the exercise inspires you, download the image, print it out and transfer the main elements or use carbon, if you prefer. Then paint the lighter areas with as much clarity as possible.


In photography, in order to exploit the chiaroscuro, a dark background is used, in the form of a sheet, cardboard or to take advantage of the darkness of a night scene.

Portrait of Natalia in chiaroscuro (photo V. Lacroix)

In this silver photo of Natalia, for a more diffuse modelling of the surfaces, especially of the face, I used a tracing paper, a technique much appreciated by Missonne, mentioned above. The photographic paper ORIENTAL, a beautiful baryta paper with warm tones, was then toned with selenium, a process that gives durability and protection to the photograph while producing a sepia note.

You can get great results even with your phone’s camera. The key to success: good exposure of the scene. In the example below I photographed sunflowers on a black cardboard. The exposure should be on the crown of the flower, the lightest part of the scene. You will have to underexpose the photograph because the cell of your camera does not know that the whole photograph is dark; the automatism associated with the shooting will try to correct this overall dark atmosphere by giving too light a value to the background.

On the left the set-up of the shooting: sunflowers on a black cardboard. On the right the sunflower in chiaroscuro (V. Lacroix ).

Go ahead!

Look at paintings, photographs, or other graphic works. Reproduce them or create them yourself.
Comment and share your experiences in the comment section below.

You can also use the chiaroscuro contrast in your interior, with the trinkets you want to highlight in the lit areas; Chiaroscuro is convenient for naturally dark rooms, places that live at night, or cozy living rooms where you want to highlight a few rare valuables, and possibly hide the disorder and dust in the rest of the room!

Exploiting the chiaroscuro in your clothing? Why not. A black ensemble with a few touches of gold in the form of a jewel or accessory seems to me to be the most beautiful exploitation of the process.

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