Chiaroscuro Drawing

September 24, 2009
Caravaggio painting


After speaking recently with another artist I realized that when most people hear the word “chiaroscuro” in relation to Art they immediately think of the paintings by Caravaggio. His visual style involved a lighting technique showing sharp value contrasts of brightly lit figures and dark backgrounds that he used for dramatic effect. However, the use of the term actually goes beyond that application by itself, and includes images that display a more subtle range of values from light and dark (its literal translation,) all set on a middle-toned ground. You can find this often in drawings and prints, but also in paintings as well.

Ugo da Carpi drawing

Ugo da Carpi

Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer

The way a “chiaroscuro drawing” is usually identified is when toned paper is used as a middle value with darker and (possibly) lighter tones drawn or painted in. The root of this effect is traced back to ancient woodcut prints. Typically the white areas in the print come from the paper itself, and the rest was ink, as in this print by Ugo da Carpi of Diogenes. This limited use of values has a long tradition that extends up to recent printmaking techniques. An alternative method is this drawing by Durer using solid black, a middle value of gray, and highlights of white painted in.

Inexpensive printing in the late 20th century used a two-tone (“duo-tone”) process with two inks, typically black and another color of a middle value, as in this image below by James Bingham. Compare that to the Lucas Cranach woodcut made in the 15th century.

John Bingham

James Bingham

Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lucas Cranach the Elder

In painting, an imprimatura wash of color at the beginning is a very old technique, but it’s often used in an interesting effect by leaving that tone visible in the final stage instead of covering it all up with glazes, as tradition dictates. Look at this Mead Shaeffer illustration, for example. Notice how the orange in the sky is also exposed in the foreground figures.

Mead Schaeffer

Mead Schaeffer

This layering of tones can also include texture as well, and no one did this to greater success than the great Bernie Fuchs, as in this painting of Satchel Paige. Not only is the initial background tone still visible, it’s the most important part of the whole spatial relationship of shapes in the painting. The vertical streaks flatten the depth of the image with just enough detail added so our eyes can fill in the missing forms. He carries on an ancient tradition by wrapping it up in a contemporary technique.

Bernie Fuchs

Bernie Fuchs

It is fitting for me to close this article in celebration of the art of Bernie Fuchs, who recently passed away. His art has been an inspiration to me for decades and I will forever be grateful to him.

One comment

  1. I happened to notice today while browsing the Google Art Project site that there was a better version of the Carpi print “Diogenes” at the Princeton Museum on view. Take a look.

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