By Beatriz Esquivel
One of the best terms to describe and understand the use of lighting in painting is chiaroscuro. In general terms, chiaroscuro gives the effect of a strong source of light from outside the canvas hitting directly on the subjects. Artists achieve this by using different gradients and hues. Chiaroscuro doesn’t only give a strong lighting effect, it also bestows the painting with three-dimensionality, making the subjects look deeper and more real. Another common resource to achieve impressing this lighting effect is painting candles or gas lamps to actually add the source of light in the canvas.
Over time, chiaroscuro became a common technique used not only in painting, but also in other visual disciplines like photography, movies, theater, and even art installations that use space and light to create strong effects on the subjects. Contemporary artist James Turrell uses the technique frequently and though he doesn’t precisely apply it on canvases, he describes chiaroscuro perfectly. For him, “light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation.”
Bearing that in mind, it’s hard to see many paintings created with this technique having the same impact without it. Not only that, as you’ll see below, many of these artists, now considered geniuses, wouldn’t have that recognition without their mastery in the technique. So, let’s see how they interpreted light and why these effects made their paintings masterpieces.
It would be a huge offense not to start with the master of chiaroscuro, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The combination of religious motifs with his characteristic dramatic style that contrasts light and shadows made him the original master of all things dark and eerie. His work inspired a long line of painters that emulated his style, like the following artist.
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, c. 1607.
Supper at Emmaus, 1601.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is mainly known for his portraits and self-portraits, as well as his historical scenes and religious motifs. But besides his subjects, it’s his style that makes him such an important artist. The ability he had to create shadows in his paintings together with the light effects he created is unique. Like Caravaggio, he’s been a huge influence in painting to the point that there’s even light technique in photography known as Rembrandt lighting used mainly for portraits.
An Old Man in Red, 1654 The Night Watch, 1642.
Peter Paul Rubens
This Flemish artist was also a renowned master of chiaroscuro, which he used mainly to bring a sense of drama to historical scenes. These weren’t only extremely detailed, but also, the lighting is so good that it managed to work as some sort of guide for the viewer to see each and every element of the composition.
The Fall of Phaeton, 1604.
Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1613-1615.
Adam de Coster
Known for his eerie artworks, Adam de Coster was also acclaimed for his thorough and meticulous study of light. Always ranging more into the shadows, the light becomes a subtle character that brings intrigue to the story.
A Man Singing by Candlelight, 17th century
A Young Woman Holding a Distaff Before a Lit Candle, 17th century
Unlike some of the artists we’ve seen already who used chiaroscuro to create a darker and more intense effect, Vermeer based all his compositions through light. That’s the case of The Milkmaid (1657-8) where the window as a source of light bestows the blue color of the attire (a color that was particularly expensive back then) a unique hue that wasn’t common at that time. He also uses the same effect in The Geographer (1668-9).
The Milkmaid, 1658.
The Geographer, 1669.
Though this particular use of light isn’t characteristic in Francisco de Goya’s paintings, he has some, like Christ on the Mount of Olives, where he shows a clear interest in experimenting with the techniques of the time. In Goya’s work, particularly, more than a resource to create depth and dimension, light is a protagonist that conveys a particular message as the rest of his subjects do.
Christ on the Mount of Olives, 1819.
Lazarillo de Tormes, 1808-1810.
The Russian painter also made of light one of his main characteristics along with his iconic studies of night scenes. Now, though most of his work is lost, some of his paintings have reappeared, giving art historians some examples of how chiaroscuro and his love for portraiture were a constant of his work.
Self Portrait, 1892.
Leo Tolstoi, 1882.
Gerard van Honthorst
Unlike many of the artists we’ve seen so far, most of van Honthorst’s work is characterized for having elements like candles or torches as sources of light, like in Mocking of Christ. However, he also liked playing with natural light like in The Concert, a painting in which the characters closer to the viewer are darker than the ones in the back, something unusual and quite iconic.
The Matchmaker, 1625.
Mocking of Christ, 1616-1617.
Finally, our last artist, the Spanish Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, was known for his portraits and historical scenes. Most of his work is based on landscapes and outdoor scenes, meaning that most of his subjects are constantly under the rays of the sun. In his famous The Death of Pedro Velarde y Santilla, Sorolla efficiently manages to control the light of the sky during the battle making a difference between the action in the barracks and the one from the exterior.
Walk on the Beach, 1909.
The death of Pedro Velarde y Santillán during the defence of the Monteleon Artillery Barracks, 1884.
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
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