What is chiaroscuro?

Because this has come up a time or two in conversation with readers, it feels like time to explain what chiaroscuro is and why I chose it as the title for my first novel. Bear with me: I was a humanities major in college and can ramble on about the things I love for quite some time.

Chiaroscuro is the contrast and harmony between light and dark—ideally, a very deep dark and very bright light.

St. Peter in Prison
St. Peter in Prison by Rembrandt

In this painting, St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt uses chiaroscuro to illustrate the contrast between the despair of prison and St. Peter’s faith, represented by the subtle halo around his head.

In Italian it means “clear-dark”, and you’ll find it in paintings, photography, drawings, film—any artfully arranged visual medium. It’s generally used to highlight or emphasize a specific area or subject: our eyes are naturally drawn to contrasts, and we’ll often follow the visual path from dark to light so the artist will paint the most important object as the brightest thing.

The Calling of St. Matthew
The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio

In The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, for example, the artist paints Jesus in shadow, except for the shaft of light above his casual hand: the focus is all on Matthew, who is about to experience a conversion. (The most exciting paintings are about the moment everything’s different.)

It can also be much more subtle, of course.

The Milkmaid
The Milkmaid by Vermeer

With The Milkmaid by Vermeer, the eye is drawn in a diagonal line from the lower left corner, which is nearly black, to the upper right, which is almost pure white. There’s also a division in the opposite direction, from the dark corner above the window to the lighter right-hand lower corner—a cross-shaped composition, in which the maid is a solid focus point. (I once read Vermeer’s use of light described as “paint mixed with milk,” which is probably the best way to describe it. His surfaces shimmer like pearls.)

As for the title, I knew early on I wanted to use an art term. The trouble with most art terms is that out of context, they don’t make a whole lot of sense. As I was doing the final edits before I submitted the novel I noticed there were references to dark and light, not as opposites but as things that supported and strengthen each other, and I knew that was my title.