What is… Chiaroscuro?

Chiaroscuro, Italian for light-dark, is a lighting technique created by stark contrasts between light and shadow. It is used in almost all forms of art and was popularised by Renaissance painters to give depth to three-dimensional objects in their work. Caravaggio was one of the biggest proponents of the technique, as shown in an example of his work below, Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes is an example of chiaroscuro in Renaissance paintings

Fast-forward a bit from the Renaissance era and chiaroscuro is used to great effect in films, too. Nosferatu, the 1922 vampire flick, uses shadow very effectively, whilst it has become an integral part of some directors’ work, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock to name but two. See below for a couple of examples…

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (1941)


Psycho (1960)

Chiaroscuro is perhaps most prevalent in the film noir genre, with most films with that label exhibiting the technique at some point during the film. It is often used to give the impression of natural lighting, often from one particular source, thus casting more shadow compared to light sources coming from various angles. Consequently, this helps to play a large part in the film’s tone, allowing it to convey a sense of mystery and suspense. However, there is another reason for the use of chiaroscuro, particularly in film noir. Many film noirs, those in the 1940s and ’50s in particular, were created on a tight budget, and by only lighting a small amount of the set, this would not only save money on more elaborate lighting, but would also let filmmakers get away with using shabbier sets without having to dress them up to the same extent.

Chiaroscuro is most prevalent in black and white films, simply because this is where it is most effective; it’s just easier to show the distinction between light and dark in monochrome. However, it has still been used to great effect in colour films, one in particular being Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Kubrick wanted to shoot the whole film using natural light but for some scenes that would mean using nothing but candlelight. At the time (1975), cameras did not have an aperture large enough to cope with this and so Kubrick managed to get his hands on cameras designed for NASA that would allow shooting in much lower light. The results were as follows…

The results may not be quite as striking as those found in black and white films, but the use of natural light from a single, or very few, light sources, gives a beautiful blend of light and shadow to create an incredibly rich mise-en- scรจne. More recently, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has also used the chiaroscuro technique to great effect and has created scene that are not far removed from its black and white counterparts created decades previously.

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012)

Chiaroscuro is an incredibly effective lighting technique that can be used to convey a range of meanings from the inner turmoil of a character to a sense of foreboding and apprehension. It comes under the general ‘lighting’ umbrella and some may argue that it’s just a fancy term to describe the use of light and shadow (essentially it is), but it’s a technique that can still be effective if used appropriately and can add a great deal to a film’s cinematography.

For previous entries of ‘What is…?’, click here.


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23 thoughts on “What is… Chiaroscuro?

  1. ckckred says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by Kubrick’s use of lighting in Barry Lyndon.

  2. vinnieh says:

    Fantastic post, I found this really informative.

  3. mistylayne says:

    This is a fabulous post! I love learning about stuff like this (okay I just like learning) and I am now kind of in love with the word “chiaroscuro”.

  4. Awesome post, man! Very informative. I had read a bit about chiaroscuro in painting, but never about its use in film. Now that I think about it, it’s a pretty obvious thing to borrow from classic art.

  5. Tyson Carter says:

    Interesting stuff dude, well played ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. ruth says:

    Very informative post, Terry. I have heard of the term Chiaroscuro but nice to see it explained in such depth. Well done, man!

  7. sati says:

    Great post! I heard that term few times and never knew what it meant, I had no idea that it applied to films too. Love that picture from Lincoln.

    • Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m glad I could help you learn a little something! And it is a great picture from Lincoln. It’s not out over here until next year but I’ve heard some really good things about it and I’d seen some stills that look fantastic.

  8. Mark Walker says:

    Great info there Chris. I’d never heard of this before. Love this little feature you have.

  9. Aha! So THAT’S what that is called. Excellent post

  10. Anonymous says:

    Great post, I’m a highschool art teacher and used this to help make connections between film and Baroque artworks. Having them recreate/mix scenes.

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