How A Romance Novelist Uses Chiaroscuro

by | April 27, 2018 |

Origins of Chiaroscuro

The term chiaroscuro comes from the Italian words ‘light-dark’ and refers to the use of contrasts of light to create a sense of three-dimensional objects and figures. I have chosen to illustrate the term with The Matchmaker by Dutch Golden Age painter Gerritt van Honthorst (1592-1656) as the title image. It is, perhaps, a heavy-handed example.

The ‘light-dark’ technique arose during the Renaissance and is characteristic of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt, among others. However, the term can apply to any 2-dimensional medium, such as photography and film, where the artist uses contrasts of light and dark to create visual depth.

Among the more famous examples of chiaroscuro is by another Dutch Golden Age painter:


The Girl With a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, 1665

In contrast to the artificial look of van Honthorst’s lighting, Vermeer’s looks more natural.

Use of Chiaroscuro In Present Day

Zooming forward several hundred years to the film industry, one of the differences that strikes me between, say, an Oscar-worthy movie and one seen on the Hallmark Channel is the use of chiaroscuro in the former and its absence in the latter.

I do not choose the Hallmark Channel at random. It’s known for showing romance. Here is the title image for the DVD collection of When Calls the Heart Year 4:


There is a foreground and a background, but there are no light-dark contrasts. The lighting is uniform.

In contrast, here’s a shot of a famous scene that needs no introduction:


“Unfair!” you might cry, to compare When Calls the Heart to Casablanca, one of the most famous films of all time. I don’t mean to be unfair. Rather, I’m trying to make my own chiaroscuro point.

The Hallmark Channel isn’t interested in plays of light and dark. It wants to stay on the surface. Even when incorporating the darker side of life into the story, say the death of a loved one, the narrative feel is sunny. And so must be the look, as well. Thus, the camera work matches the narrative intent.

I’ve watched my share of Hallmark Channel movies and read my share of two-dimensional romances with characters who feel stock. I’ve even enjoyed both. However, I like romantic movies and books, even more, when the author creates well-rounded characters with some depth and complexity.

In a romance the chiaroscuro is found in the interior lives of the main characters as they make their emotional journeys toward one another.

Examples of Chiaroscuro Use

An example is in order. I have chosen a passage from my own Suspicious Hearts, a murder-mystery romance set in Georgian London. I chose it only because a reviewer once flagged the following passage as a particularly effective introduction to a character. Occurring as it does on page two, it’s the reader’s first glimpse into the interior of the hero, Richard Worth.

Worth has just been asked by a good friend why he sold out of the army, when the army had been his whole life:

“Worth was prepared for the question. He was not about the recount how it had been those few months ago, stationed at Antwerp, that he woke up one morning and said, ‘No more.’ That was all. No more would the smell of boiled beans and blood and burnt powder fill his nose. No more would he awaken to the chill of his spine on hard earth at raw dawn. He wanted no more recruits, no more bounties, no more victories, no more deaths.

“Instead, Worth smoothed the fall of lace at his wrist. ‘I was bored,’ he said. ‘Yes, bored.'”

So, he’s an ex-military man who has had enough. In subsequent passages it’s revealed that he has a scandalous past and is now on a mission to regain his place in society. However, in this first passage, what’s most important is that the reader learns he’s a man who likes to keep his own counsel.

My job was to create the light and dark of his tightly wound emotional world as it unspools over the course of the story. I’m glad some readers thought I got off to a good start.

The heroine, Caroline, has her own path to take with its play of light and dark.

Here’s to the creation of emotional chiaroscuro!

See: Writing Tips

See also: How Visual Art Has Informed My Writing Career

For more writing advice, visit my complete guide for writing a book.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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