Chiaroscuro – From Caravaggio to Harris Savides

Posted By yonghow on August 7th, 2007

I believe I first heard of the obscure word Chiaroscuro many many years ago as an art elective student in Victoria School – My then art teacher, a distinguished Irish gentleman named Paul O’shea, was an accomplished artist who taught the subject with such passionate fervor that Art history left a deep, lasting impression on me and continues to be a big source of inspiration for my works today. Mr O’shea also pronounced Chiaroscuro ( and Contrapposto ) beautifully; I lucidly remember my classmates and me grinning in childish pleasure every time the word escaped his lips.

Chiaroscuro, simply put, means light and darkness. In painting terms, it denotes the use of deep variations in and subtle gradations of light and shade to create the illusion of three-dimensionality, often to dramatic effect. The Baroque artist Caravaggio was a champion of Chiaroscuro, creating paintings ( Supper at Emmaus, below ) as hauntingly beautiful now as they were 400 years ago.

Light and darkness are also prerequisite, quintessential elements in motion film and photography, so its little surprise that cinematographers have learned to apply the principles of Chiaroscuro to their craft. Jonathan Glazer’s controversial film Birth, shot by Harris Savides, is an excellent example.

I like this film immensely. Every single shot is handsomely lit, every frame painstakingly composed to recreate the feel and essence of Caravaggio’s paintings. I hope to watch it again in detail to study the splendid lighting and composition.

ps. I got my copy of the dvd from Amazon for only 8 dollars. A steal !

Posted in Art, Cinematography, Film

12 Responses to “Chiaroscuro – From Caravaggio to Harris Savides”


Oh, you would surerly love to learn the Italian language! Have you ever been in Italy??

Erik Westlund

hummm… someone else commenting on language. But I digress.

Again, you bring beautiful images. And you remind me of my own favorite art instructors who’s passion fueled my learning and interest in art AND art history. There were two in particular who stood out: James Hennessey and Simon Governor.

The connections between film, photography, and renaissance art art deep to be sure. The best directors of photography in film have always been more than just a little familiar with painting.


Nicola – The word Chiaroscuro is Italian isn’t it ? I wish I knew Italian…then I’ll be able to watch Cinema Paradiso without english subtitles. :] I haven’t been in Italy before, but I certainly will in the near future !

Erik – I believe you will agree with me when I say that any person equipped with an understanding of art history will tend to see the world, in particular the visual arts in a different way. I am glad I have been schooled, at the very least, in the basics of the history of Art.

The connection between CG, special fx and photography are also strong. Its no mistake that some of the best special effects supervisors out there are also DOPs, a notable example been Dennis Muren, who is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers. (ACS)


Yes chiaroscuro is an Italian word, as contrapposto etc. If you come in Italy please let me know! Ehi if I come in Tokyo again I’d like to meet you!

tiny Red Man

oh, i wonder if you are celebrating Singapore’s birthday today in japan..anyway, if you are free, catch the free webcast at ..starts around 18:00 Singapore time.

Otaku Surf

I watched this film the other day with some friends and we really liked it. You’re right about the cinematography for the film. It’s outstanding. Now if I can recreate this with my DSLR…


Nicola – Thank you !

tiny Red Man – Unfortunately its work as usual here in Japan, but thanks for the link !

Otaku Surf – Glad you like the film too ! :] I believe Harris Savides underexposed the filmstock by a few stops during shooting, though I am not aware of the exact details.


The recent Harry Potter films use alot of chiaroscuro as well, just I’d let you all know 🙂


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