This is an Italian term which literally means ‘light-dark’. In paintings the description refers to clear tonal contrasts which are often used to suggest the volume and modelling of the subjects depicted.

(definition from )

Tintoretto ( 1518 – 1594).

Venetian painter, originally named Jacopo Robusti.

The Decent into Hell 1569 image from

The light in this painting serves to draw our attention on the figures the artist wishes us to focus on. Light picking out edges of objects in the background only, giving the effect of depth.






Self Portrait c. 1547 image from


In this example of a self portrait the background is completely solid the light serving to illuminate the face pushing it forward toward us.


Caravaggio 1571 – 1610
Caravaggio – baroque artist, working on realistic images often showing people “warts and all”.
Below is his painting of Narcissus is one of  only two paintings that he did referencing classic mythology.

Narcissus c. 1597-99 – image from


Using the dark background with no detail at all the figure is almost 3d in appearance.  The reflection in the water, muted . I am drawn to the face every time (obviously the purpose due to the subject) but is this because of the circle caused by the arms and reflection?

The Calling of Saint Matthew- image from

Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



 In “The Calling of Saint Matthew”, Caravaggio has included the source of the light, illuminating the figures but still only part of them, the rest of the room is completely blackness.  The religious nature of this picture, like many of his paintings uses Chiaroscuro to illustrate a kind of heavenly light illuminating the characters in the frame.
Peter Paul Rubens 1577 – 1640
Diplomat as well as Court artist, born in Germany lived in Belgium most of his life.

Night Scene image from http://www.commons


There is a little detail in the background in the Night Scene, more of a feel that the characters are in a room. The light coming from the candle showing us the faces and the clothes.  This feels more intimate than the grander pictures as if we are sharing the moment.







Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797

English Portrait and Landscape painter. Acclaimed as the first painter to encompass the spirit of the industrial revolution.


Academy by Lamplight image from

Fabulous depth, the light picks up limbs and clothing at different distances from the eye.  Muted colours, almost sepia.  The black in the top left corner darkest with the arch behind and its darkness soft.





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