How to Paint Chiaroscuro in Oils


Chiaroscuro is an oil painting technique dating back to the Renaissance period where an element of high drama is achieved by expressing a subject lit by a single light source, often a candle against a dark background. Rubens, Caravaggio and Durer used chiaroscuro to create sinister undertones to their paintings. This can be seen in Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, depicting betrayal. But how is chiaroscuro achieved?

What is Chiaroscuro?

I explored this art technique when writing my art instruction book: Skin Tones in Oil: 10 Step by Step Guides from Old Masters. Two of the demonstrations within feature chiaroscuro, which are Caravaggio’s The Sick Bacchus and Rubens’ Samson and Delilah. Recreating these great oil paintings was one way of learning how to attain chiaroscuro effects.

Art Materials Needed for Chiaroscuro on Skin Tones

Without outlining how these paintings was done in full, find an overview here which takes a look at one of Caravaggio’s paintings, The Sick Bacchus. The art materials used when working on this project are:

  • Gessoed art panel measuring 10x12in
  • Medium and wide filbert ox hair brushes (sizes 6 and 10)
  • Medium and wide sables (round no’s 3 and 6)
  • Brown and blue acrylic paint
  • Oil colors: titanium white, cadmium yellow, alizarin crimson, pthalo blue, burnt umber, burnt sienna and viridian.
  • Artist spirits and linseed oil

Deep Shadows on Skin Tones

In order to create a suitable tonal key for chiaroscuro painting, the panel needed an underglaze prior to the main painting. This meant that the underdrawing had to be sufficiently dark to show through the glaze. Here, I blocked in brown acrylic paint around the figure. A little blue can be mixed in to darken the brown to black. Once the paint was dry, the drawing of the figure was overlaid with a thin blue wash of acrylic paint.

Tonal Keys in Chiaroscuro

As can be seen, these dark underglazes help set the stage for the dramatic tonal contrasts, typical of chiaroscuro. Conducting such a painting on a white art board would have been more difficult.

My youtube video shows how I painted one of Caravaggio's paintings, Judith Beheading Holofernes, showing chiaroscuro effects.

YouTube Video


How to Paint Chiaroscuro

The palest areas of flesh tone were worked on first. Various ratios of burnt sienna and white were applied around the brow, cheek and chin from a medium sable. A little cadmium yellow was added for slightly golden colors. It can be seen here, that these cream and gold skin tones provide stark contrasts against the dark underglazes from the start.

These pale skin colors were worked progressively darker by adding a little more burnt sienna and finally burnt umber for the cooler areas. Look for color temperatures within the figure. Some skin tones are warmer than others. Notice the contrast between grayish skin tones and the warmer sepia tones on Bacchus’s torso and upper arm. A little pthalo blue was added to the original skin mixture for the cooler areas. A clean, medium sable was worked over rough areas to create smooth blends. Linseed oil will need to be added for smooth gradations.

Renaissance Art Technique for Skin tones

Look out for how the visible skin tones melt into darkness without any lines. This is vital for successful chiaroscuro. Some tones melt gradually; others more abruptly but none exhibit actual outlines. Negative shapes can be seen around the Bacchus’s hair and eyebrows which are the same color as the background.

Darkening Skin Tones in Chiaroscuro

Fine sables were used around the facial features, where the skin tone was darkened further until it matched the color of the background. Outlines at the hairline and the furthermost side of the face were softened with a fine sable bearing an incremental color. The wreath was illustrated with a somber color mixture of viridian and burnt umber, which again, melts into the pervading dark background.


Painting Caravaggio’s Figures in Oil

The background gloom was reinforced with an upper glaze of oil paint which consisted of burnt umber and pthalo blue. This color was smoothed over the background and pulled right up to the outlines of the figure. Harsh edges were blended out with a clean sable or a cotton bud. A second glaze of oil paint might be needed on select areas to further smooth blends and increase depth of tone. Additional linseed oil will be needed around these areas.

© Rachel Shirley 2013



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