Chiaroscuro – Sculpting with light

Reang-Woman Since I’ve been pretty much consumed by all things light related recently, writing texts for my new e-book, I decided to write a post in the spirit of, you guessed it – light.

When I’m shooting, particularly when shooting portraits I have an obsession with creating a sense of volume and depth, making my photographic subjects appear sculpted, three dimensional. Turns out there has been a word for this “look”, since long before photography. The word is – “chiaroscuro”.

Now, call me an idiot, or a bad student, since I’m sure we learned this in my art history class at university, but when I heard the word from a traveling artist I befriended in Indonesia, I didn’t really know what he was on about.

Of course I put on a smart, understanding face, the first time I heard it, 🙂 but after he used the word a second time, remarking how much he loved the presence of “chiaroscuro” in my work, (which I was showing him) I could pretend no longer 🙂 – “chiaro-what?”  He gave me a definition along the lines of what I later found later on Wikipedia:

Chiaroscuro (Italian for light-dark) is a term in art for a contrast between light and dark. The term is usually applied to bold contrasts affecting a whole composition, but is also more technically used by artists and art historians for the use of effects representing contrasts of light, not necessarily strong, to achieve a sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects such as the human body.”

Today, as I was looking at some of my images, trying to explain the natural light in them and to break down into diagrams how it can be managed, I remembered the word and decided to Google it.

Caravaggio and Rembrant are two famous artists known for their mastery of “chiaroscuro”. I’m not making a revelation when I say that they’re masters for a reason. One thing is for a photographer to see the light and to position the subject in a way that will create the “chiaroscuro” look and another is to actually paint it. Every little detail is noticed and needless to say, the work of these artists is inspirational, even a few hundred years after its creation.

One important thing to note is that the masters were able to create compelling images without any of the amazing technology we have today (lighting or photographic). Many still do this there’s something to be said there. We don’t need fancy light set ups, artists have sculpted with light for hundreds of years. The first step for us as photographers is to see the light that is before us and understand how to work with it. There’s no sense in rejecting the creative opportunities that artificial light brings – that would be “counter evolutionary”, but there’s also no reason to ignore the power of natural light.

My stance is all for making the most of available light, in the literal sense of the word – any and all light available to the photographer on the move, that’s what I really want to explore in the e-book.

On a side note: I wander if any of the painters rave on about their gear or debate about which paint or brush is better, as photographers often do?

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20 Responses to “Chiaroscuro – Sculpting with light”

  1. Gavin Says:

    That’s a really lovely study Mitchell. Tell us about the circumstances? Posed or spontaneous? Natural light or artificial? What’s that background? Who is she? How did you meet? What brushes did you use? 😉

  2. Paolo Says:

    This is exciting stuff. I really liked your last ebook. And can’t wait for your next ebook (which as I remember is about the lighting?)

    Good fortune to you!

  3. pixelatedimage Says:

    Mitchell – Well brought up, are we going to see you explore this with more depth?

    If there’s one thing I wish more photographers did it’s read up on art and art history. We do not exist in a vacuum and while our tradition is so new, the tradition of painting has so much to teach us about line, tension, balance, seeing light, on and on – in fact the painters understand it so much more than we do. We talk flippantly about “painting with light” as though that elevates our craft when what would really elevate it is actually studying 🙂 For us becoming a “master” means all kinds of things but none of them even approach what it means for a painter to become one. We have much to learn.

    So, well done!

  4. Jeffrey Chapman Says:

    A photographer who looks back at the history of his art (or craft) to only Niépce, Daguerre, and others of the early 19th century is myopic. Photography is as tied to the cave of Lascaux as anything painted on canvas during the Renaissance. Photography is a technique. A camera is a tool. It is fundamental, IMO, to look not only at the photographers who preceded us but at all the great artists without regard to their differing techniques and tools.

    Mitchell, that is a wonderful portrait. Her eyes peer into my soul.

  5. Diego Jose Says:

    Learned something new today 😀 Thanks Mitchell!


  6. Jeroen Berkenbosch Says:

    Now that I know the right word for it, I need to learn how to pronounce it… :p

  7. Z Says:

    Nice lighting. And easy to repeat, which is always a plus for a photographer.
    By the way, the proper spelling is Caravaggio.

  8. Jakub Ł. Gustak Says:

    As far as I am concerned, painters do not rant excitedly over their equipment. And some photographers do not either. But they are in minority.

  9. Craig Ferguson (@cfimages) Says:

    A great photographer (or artist in general) will produce great work with whatever light is available. If one has an understanding of the nature of light, it really doesn’t matter what kind of light they have – masterpieces can still result.

    Without the understanding, intuitive or otherwise, it’s all down to luck. And who wants to take those chances.

    Lovely portrait Mitchell, both it and the post (and all your other work) show your understanding.

  10. Mitchell Says:

    Thanks for the comments guys.

    Gavin: The shot is taken in Kanchanpur, Tripura, India – a pretty bloody remote place. 🙂 It was too sunny outside at a market where lots of Reang tribals (this lady is a Reang) came from the surrounding villages to make their “weekly shopping”. I had to shoot under a more controlled light. A friend of mine owned a shop at this market and I asked if I could invite some of the people to take their photos in a room out the back. I wanted to shoot there, because I liked the texture of the wall in the background and the light was perfect, coming from a medium sized window on the side.

    And so, we had a couple of people come in to have their photo taken. It was quite a funny experience, because as fascinated as I was with them, they were probably even more fascinated and shocked to see me. Before we knew it, word got out that this nutty foreigner was taking photos and people got the impression that I was taking photos for them, so in the end it had to become that too. I’d take a photo that I wanted and then one with their family doing some very “formal” poses. When I returned home I sent all those images to my friend’s shop, so the people could get the images during one of their visits to the market.

    There’ll be a lot on how I actually used the light, with diagrams, explanations and stuff like that in the ebook.

  11. Mitchell Says:

    David: Yes, I am going to explore the philosophy behind “seeing” light and how that plays into photography in the e-book. I think this needs attention beyond the sunrise/sunset sort of thing. Light is like another character in a photo and I feel that it should be treated as such.

    Jeffrey: Agreed about looking at all the great artists’ works and there’s also so much more than the technique to being an artist. To me a huge part of that is experience and just living life. If a person has seen more, lived more, he/she should at least in theory have more to say through the art. 🙂

  12. Julien Dorol Says:

    Really interesting Mitchell. It reminds me that I should read a lot more on art and art history. I knew a few things on composition rules that painters use, but never had the idea to find out what they use for light.

    I wish a camera was as simple as a brush…

  13. Cheryl Caron Says:

    I have been following your blog for a few months. LOVE your portraits. I was happy that you revealed post processing techniques in your e-book. I have much to learn. But… I love that about photography, too. Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait for more on Chiaroscuro. Now, I am going to google to find out how to pronounce it.

  14. Mitchell Says:

    Thanks Julian and Cheryl for your comments.

  15. Eric Says:

    Wandering through an art museum or art book is a great way to study photography without getting overloaded on photos themselves, thanks for the reminder!

    Nice shot and thanks for the back story, I always like to hear what was happening before and after the photo was taken.

  16. - Tom Bourdon Photography - Images of global celebration Says:

    […] called ‘chiaroscuro’ Mitchell Kanashkevich explains more in an interesting blog post here). In actual fact this contrast is the relationship between highlights and shadows or light/dark, […]

  17. AitchCS Says:

    NIce work.
    I googled names of painters who also sculpted– like Degas for one. And you were one of the first entries to come up. I associate chiaroscuro with the German Expressionistic films of the 20 and 30s. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and all that.

  18. AitchCS Says:

    And I am a huge fan of photography.
    And I am making an art of being a complete amateur.

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