The Use of Chiaroscuro Within Art History and Photography

by Abigail Bubiak

The Use of Chiaroscuro Within Art History and Photography

     One of the most compelling aspects of a piece of artwork for me is that of the shadows – what is not there, what is merely alluded to, what is left to the imagination; shadows add mood, perspective, facet and meaning to a piece. If used properly, light can be one of the main intrigues of a composition. Light creates shadow, and shadow then strengthens the appearance of the subject; the interaction between light and dark is a fascinating and powerful tool for painters and photographers alike (Williams, 2009).

     Looking through historical paintings, I was greatly inspired by the Greek painter from antiquity, El Greco. A painter during the Spanish Renaissance, he took full advantage of the use of shadows in his paintings through the use of what is known as Chiaroscuro (Wikipedia contributors, 2011). Chiaroscuro is an Italian word meaning “light dark,” used to describe the artistic technique of balancing both light and dark within an artwork to create strong contrasts and, therefore, a dramatic effect. The specific painting by El Greco I will look at in this post is called An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool. It shows a very strong relationship between light and shadow which I find mesmerizing and quite mysterious; colour is brighter where light is present but in the recesses and dark corners of the painting the subjects fade away into darkness, presenting a sense of the unknown and unseen.

     Chiaroscuro is a very large part of this image because without it, the mood and composition of the piece would be entirely different; the shadows are not just simply adding slight depth or three-dimensional qualities, as in some other paintings, but is rather the main focus of the piece as a whole and makes it entirely what it is. Rather interesting to note is that El Greco actually produced more paintings, with the same name and subject, using different amounts of light and dark; comparing the one which uses Chiaroscuro the most – the one to which I am referencing here – with earlier or later productions of the paintings which use more and more light, the meaning within the painting significantly changes, which shows just how remarkably important the use of chiaroscuro really is in the portrayal of the subject. Other forms of Chiaroscuro include the use of Rembrandt lighting or the use of natural or ambient light within a piece, and would have been most popular around the time of the Renaissance, but is also used often within art today.

     Chiaroscuro can easily translate into the world of photography; photography, especially that of black and white film, relies heavily on the use of light and dark to create a meaningful composition and also to create depth. In much the same way it is used in painting, chiaroscuro creates an intriguing relationship between light and dark that forms the mood, perspective, and meaning within the photograph, and what is not there (hidden in shadows) is just as, if not more, important than what is seen. Examples of this technique can be found in many different areas of photography in our modern day. Just a few examples of modern-day masters of chiaroscuro in photography are W. Eugene Smith, Garry Winogrand, Annie Leibovitz and Ralph Gibson (Wikipedia contributors, 2011), whose art personally reminds me of surreal, dreamlike atmospheres due to his use of shadowing. Gregg Toland as an artist influenced cinematographers with his use of deep and selective focus with strong horizon-level, and light streaming through doorways and windows (Wikipedia contributors, 2011).

     Looking at paintings both from art history, such as that of El Greco, as well as photographs from history as well as modern day, it is obvious that lighting plays a large role in the outcome and emotional feel of the pieces and how they affect the viewer. Whether black and white or in full colour, light and darkness and the interplay of shadows can alter mood, emotion, composition, meaning, and create a sense of a different reality where life seems surreal, a mystery on canvas or in print. Since photography is, in itself, a form of art just as much as painting is, it is no wonder that it would borrow from the same pool of techniques used in painting, just as modern paintings can also use aspects of photography. Inspired as I am by this new arsenal of light, dark, shadow and possibility, I can’t wait to get out my Holga and try the techniques out for myself.


This is an image of An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool by El Greco, 1589-92. It is the painting which uses Chiaroscuro as its main technique/effect.
Author: EL GRECO    
Date: 1589-92
Technique: Oil on canvas, 67.3 x 88.6 cm
Form: Painting
Location: National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

This image is that of El Greco again, but though this painting is of the same subject, it is actually painted in 1579 and uses a greater amount of light, which significantly changes not only the appearance of the piece but also its effect on the viewer.

Author: EL GRECO
Date: 1577-79
Technique: Oil on canvas, 65 x 90 cm
Type: genre
Form: painting
Location: Private collection



This third painting is El Greco yet again, and similarly uses an even greater amount of light (and therefore now colour) than paintings 1 and 2, and the appearance, effect and mood is altered even more, illustrating just how significant the use and effect of chiaroscuro is within the first painting.

Author: EL GRECO
Date: c. 1600
Technique: Oil on canvas, 50 x 64 cm
Type: mythological
Form: painting
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid



Here is an example of a photograph employing the chiaroscuro technique. You can see that the use of shadows is the dominant aspect of the piece itself and that this effects mood and how the image is interpreted by the viewer.

Website: Lens on Lugano

Article: Chiaroscuro and Silhouettes

Artist: Unknown



This image taken by photographer Ralph Gibson portrays a surreal-looking image which takes advantage of chiaroscuro to create the entire composition and mood of the piece, as well as a strong sense of mystery.

Website: Peter Hung, Blog About Photography Related Topics.

Artist: Ralph Gibson




Wikipedia contributors. (2011). Chiaroscuro. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Wikipedia contributors. (2011). El Greco. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Williams, M. (2009). Proper use of shadows and lighting. Retrieved on October 9th, 2011 from

Abigail Bubiak
Abigail Bubiak


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