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What is chiaroscuro?

Chiaroscuro, or light and dark, is a key technique for creating realistic art. It involves transitioning from light to dark to give the illusion of volume and mass. Titian's Venus of Urbino is a perfect example, where light and shadow define the figure and the folds in the cloth. This technique, also known as modeling, became popular during the Renaissance.

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  • female robot grace style avatar for user Andromeda
    How does one create pretty folds in the fabric? It is almost photo realistic. I understand the use of shadow and light or modern artists call it shading. But it almost looks mathematical in the angles. I'm learning to draw and drawing the folds of fabric is the hardest thus far. Thanks for explaining the elements.
    (7 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Walks on the Clouds
      Drawing folds of fabric is definitely not easy. It's not really something you can draw from imagination, either -- to be believable, it needs to follow a realistic form. One method is to observe where the main lines/folds are in a piece of fabric, and draw them. Those lines won't look like much at first -- in fact, they may look kind of silly. But then you go back and carefully shade in each area between each pair of lines, and it starts to look like actual cloth. It takes much practice/patience/good observation/faith! Working with charcoal on paper is probably the easiest way to start, and also the most affordable.
      By the way, the art term for folds in fabric is "drapery." You can research how to draw drapery online, and you'll probably find much useful information. Dr. Zucker & Dr. Harris often mention drapery in their videos, because the depiction of drapery is significant in the history of art.
      Good luck to you in your artistic endeavors!
      (16 votes)
  • hopper happy style avatar for user Flavia Nunes Pino
    Is considerate a chiaroscuro technique what we see on old greco-roman paints?
    (8 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Jesse Alcorta
      When I think of Greek and Roman art, I think more about sculpture and building than I do paintings. I doubt that chiaroscuro was in mind when the Greeks or Romans created sculptures, they already had three dimensional relief. Greek and Roman painting looks flatter.

      When I look at Greek pottery I don't see the level of shadow and volume to the figures that I do in "Titian" as they showed in this video at :40 through :10. Look at legs of Venus and the sheet again and compare it to Greek pottery as shown in other videos. I don't believe the Romans had the technique in mind either.
      (4 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user pedrom2019
    I watched both videos, what is foreshortening, and what is chiaroscuro, and they seem to be pretty much the same thing. What is the difference?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers seedling style avatar for user zach
    is this originally an Italian word?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Joachim Belz
    Dear Khan academy - could you please turn off the default subtitles? Thank you so much!
    (0 votes)
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  • winston default style avatar for user IcecreamBeast
    This was very informative for my art class! Bet i'll use it in class!
    (1 vote)
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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)