A-level: Chiaroscuro explained


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Dr. Beth Harris: [0:03] If you want your painting or your drawing to look realistic, to look naturalistic, to look like the observable world, then a technique that art historians call modeling or chiaroscuro is critical.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:17] Chiaroscuro means simply “light and dark.” What we’re talking about is the modulation or the transition from light to dark. When we look around an object in space, parts of it will be more brightly illuminated and parts of it, especially as they move away from us, will be more in shade.

[0:32] The ability to render that on a two-dimensional surface on a canvas can create the illusion of volume and mass, of a thing in space.

Dr. Harris: [0:40] Here, we’re looking at Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” this lovely nude reclining on a bed, and we immediately get the sense that this is a three-dimensional body.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] Look, for instance, at her right thigh. It’s bright at the top, but as the knee turns, it turns to shadow. It doesn’t do it sharply, but as a result, her shin seems to recede into space.

Dr. Harris: [1:02] We can even follow the line of her thigh down toward the bed, and see how it moves from brighter illumination into shadow.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] Now, Titian was able to achieve this with such delicacy because he’s using oil paint, which allows for a very fine modulation of tone.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] We see this with Renaissance artists going back, for example, to Giotto, all the way through the artists of the High Renaissance, the artists of the Venetian Renaissance, like Titian.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] If we looked back at earlier medieval representations in Italy, we would often see line used to define the folds or the bunching of drapery, but here, if you look at the sheet under the figure, you can see that he’s used only light and shadow to create the folds and creases in that cloth.

Dr. Harris: [1:43] That older linear way of representing the three dimensions of drapery is not as naturalistic as this use of modeling, or chiaroscuro, that we see in the Renaissance.

Dr. Zucker: [1:53] There you have it, chiaroscuro.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-level: Chiaroscuro explained," in Smarthistory, May 23, 2017, accessed July 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/chiaroscuro-explained-2/.