The term chiaroscuro originated during the Renaissance as drawing on coloured paper, where the artist worked from the paper’s base tone toward light using white gouache, and toward dark using ink, bodycolour or watercolour. When discussing Italian art, the term sometimes is used to mean painted images in monochrome or two colours, more generally known in English by the French equivalent, grisaille. The term broadened in meaning early on to cover all strong contrasts in illumination between light and dark areas in art, which is now the primary meaning.
The more technical use of the term chiaroscuro is the effect of light modelling in painting, drawing, or printmaking, where three-dimensional volume is suggested by the gradation of colour and the analytical division of light and shadow shapes—often called “shading”. The term is mostly used to describe compositions where at least some principal elements of the main composition show the transition between light and dark.
The underlying principle is that solidity of form is best achieved by the light falling against it. Artists known for developing the technique include Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt. As The Tate says “Chiaroscuro is generally only remarked upon when it is a particularly prominent feature of the work, usually when the artist is using extreme contrasts of light and shade”.
Caravaggio employed close physical observation with a dramatic use of chiaroscuro that came to be known as tenebrism. He made the technique a dominant stylistic element, darkening shadows and transfixing subjects in bright shafts of light.His influence on the new Baroque style that emerged from Mannerism was profound. It can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Peter Paul Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation heavily under his influence were called the “Caravaggisti”. The 20th-century art historian André Berne-Joffroy stated: “What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”