Want to create realism in art? You've come to the right place.

Flowers lit in chiaroscuro style.

Chiaroscuro in art.

  • Start with a dark space
  • Use a single light source
  • Narrow the beam of light
  • Create warm-colored lights

What is the chiaroscuro technique in art?

Chiaroscuro means light and dark. It's an Italian word. As an art technique, creating a sense of chiaroscuro means creating a bold contrast between light and dark. A similar term is tenebrism. Tenebrism usually refers to a painting with an overall darkness, a boldly lit focal area, and an exaggerated sense of chiaroscuro.

Learn how to paint chiaroscuro.

This means illuminating certain areas with focused light while leaving the remainder wrapped in darkness or shadow.

Start with a dark room. Block out all light sources. I like to take chiaroscuro source photos at night. I set up my still-life and turn off the lights, creating a dark space.

Use a single light source.

Image of chiaroscuro-like lit flowers
Image of chiaroscuro-like lit flowers

If using a lamp, you may want to narrow the beam of light to create a spotlight effect. There are many ways to narrow the beam of light. Consider blocking some light as it falls across your subject with a piece of paper or fabric.

Creating warm-colored lights.

Candles produce warm golden light said to be around 1900K or 1900 Kelvin color temperature. The golden light we experience around sunrise or sunset measures around 2000K or 2000 Kelvin. Similarly, 2200K light bulbs produce warm, natural-looking light.

Tips for taking chiaroscuro reference photos for painting.

Place the camera on a tripod, set the camera's timer, use a shutter release cable, or use a camera shutter remote control to minimize shaking. Shaking creates blurry photos.

If the camera is capturing detail in the dark areas, lower the ISO, adjust the shutter speed, or the f-stop until you get a darker exposure.

Create a sense of chiaroscuro by carefully matching the values to what you see.

The concept of atmospheric perspective states that objects off in the distance often lack detail and clarity. Create an illusion of depth in a painting by muting colors and softening details in the shadow areas.

The colors should be muted, and edges should be softened. Color changes within the shadows should be subtle. Values should be similar. Use the bristles of a paintbrush to slightly soften edges as you transition from one color to another. Create an overall lack of contrast within the shadows.

Paint thin darks

Apply slightly thicker paint layers in the light areas of the painting. Reserve the thickest paint for the highlights. The texture of thicker paint catches more light, therefore drawing attention.

Image of chiaroscuro floral
Image of chiaroscuro floral


Once the lighting is right, paint what you see.