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What is chiaroscuro?

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.

Video transcript

(bright piano music) - [Beth] If you want your painting or your drawing, to look realistic, to look naturalistic, to look like the observable world, then a technique that art historians call modeling or chiaroscuro, is critical. - [Steven] Chiaroscuro means simply light and dark. And what we're talking about is the modulation or the transition from light to dark. When we look at a round object in space, parts of it will be more brightly illuminated, and parts of it, especially as they move away from us will be more in shade, and the ability to render that on a two-dimensional surface on a canvas can create the illusion of volume and mass, of a thing in space. - [Beth] And here we're looking at Titian's Venus of Urbino, this lovely nude reclining on a bed and we immediately get the sense that this is a three-dimensional body. - [Steven] Look for instance at her right thigh. It's bright at the top, but as the knee turns, it turns to shadow. It doesn't do it sharply, but as a result her shin seems to recede into space. - [Beth] Or we can even follow the line of her thigh down toward the bed, and see how it moves from brighter illumination into shadow. - [Steven] Now Titian was able to achieve this with such delicacy because he is using oil paint, which allows for a very find modulation of tone. - [Beth] But we see this with Renaissance artists going back for example, to Giotto, all the way through the artists of the high Renaissance, the artists of the Venetian Renaissance like Titian. - [Steven] If we looked back at earlier medieval representations in Italy, we would often see line used to define the folds or the bunching of drapery. But here, if you look at the sheet under the figure, you can see that he's used only light and shadow to create the folds and creases in that cloth. - [Beth] And that older linear way of representing the three-dimensions of drapery is not as naturalistic as this use of modeling or chiaroscuro that we see in the Renaissance. - [Steven] And there you have it, chiaroscuro. (bright piano music)