chiaroscuro /kee-ar-uh-SKYER-oh/. noun. Literally, the composition of light and shade or black and white in a painting or picture; figuratively to describe deep contrast.
The art world, where so many people are routinely called upon to talk or write about visual work using only words, is naturally replete with interesting language: the lingo of the artist, the jargon of the critic, the nearly incomprehensible dialect of the creative attempting to compose a sufficiently mysterious artist statement for a grant application…each contain their provocations and mysteries.
And sometimes these arty words—most of them necessarily deeply descriptive—make their way, or should make their way, into other spheres. So it is with chiaroscuro (kee-ar-uh-SKYER-oh), which is used literally to describe the composition of light and shade or black and white in a painting or picture or figuratively to describe deep contrast.
Chiaroscuro is a compound of fitting opposites: chiaro is Italian for light; oscuro is Italian for dark.
The earliest examples of the use of the word chiarascuro found so far, in fact, separate the two Italian words with a hyphen or a space. In 1686 William Aglionby writes that the artistic technique “is taken in two Senses…Painting in Chiaro-Scuro.” In 1771 Tobias Smollett writes of an artist that his “management of the chiaro oscuro, or light and shadow..is altogether wonderful.”
The two halves of what became chiaroscuro come from the Latin clarus (clear, light) and obscurus (dark, dim and hidden). Ultimately these derive from a pair of Proto Indo European roots:
- clarus from kle-ro-, which comes from kele- (to shout) … is speculated to be connected through the idea of light spreading like sound, which is probably where we get phrases like “loud colors.” From this early root we get obviously connected words like clear, clarity and clarify, but also less obviously linked words like claim, clairvoyant and nomenclature.
- The root of obscurus is (s)keu, meaning to cover or conceal, which is the source of a motley assortment of modern words from scum and meerschaum to cuticle, culottes, kishke and even cunnilingus.
Perhaps surprisingly, none of this is related to the popular Irish names Ciara (KEAR-uh) and Ciaran (KEAR-uhn). In fact, the root of these names is the Old Irish ciar which, far from relating to light or clarity, instead meant black or dark.
And while I have your ear, the similarly spelled American name Ciara (C-I-A-R-A)—popularized by the singer, model and wife of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson—is as likely to be related to the Revlon perfume Ciara (same spelling) as it is the Irish name. And since I’m sure you are dying to know, the name of the latter redolent Ciara scent is derived from none of the preceding roots, words or names, but instead represents Revlon founder Charles Revson’s initials – C-R-uh, get it?
Ah, the tangled linguistic webs we weave.
Naturally, chiaroscuro, along with other associated terminology for describing visual art, such as cangiante, sfumato and grisaille, remain relatively common in writing about art. But a word as melodic as chiaroscuro that also invokes the titanic opposites of light and dark is particularly enjoyable in the hands of accomplished literary artists.
In his Pulitzer Prize (and debut) novel The Sympathizer, Viet Than Nguyen invokes the light and dark of war—and its plumbless depths, using another favorite word of mine as well:
The General rustled in the back, rummaging through his pockets. I brought out my lighter. Thanks, Captain. For a brief moment the flame lit the palimpsest [PAL-imp-sest] of his face. Then the chiaroscuro died and his face was no longer legible.
Or Will Self who, in his novel My Idea of Fun, not only combines the literal and figurative, but works in a previous Katexic WORD too:
He continued to dog me. He was a black penumbra in the corner of my visual field, a shadow that chased the sunlight, the very chiaroscuro of the commonplace.
And I can’t help but admire Ross MacDonald turning the word into an adjective in The Drowning Pool, the second entry in perhaps the greatest private detective series of all time featuring Lew Archer:
He looked round at the desert, chiaroscuroed with moon shadows; stole a glance at me, and tensed for movement halfway between the gas pumps and the door. A hunted man in a bad movie, about to risk his two-dimensional life.
I don’t mean to imply that chiaroscuro has to be heavy. Geoff Dyer uses it to great effect in his comic (and lusty) novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi:
After the blaze of daylight, stepping into the interior was like blacking out. He had a quick scan around the ground floor and trudged up the stairs. Too bad the idea of the church tended to go hand in hand with a not inconsiderable thrust of verticality, that the notion of the bungalow had never really taken root in ecclesiastical design. He plodded onwards, climbing a stairway to chiaroscuro heaven. ~~It was all happening up here.~~
But, word buyer beware…there is always the potential that in bringing words like this into everyday conversation, you might find yourself skewered by the likes of Jim Harrison, master of unpretentious food writing (and poetry. and fiction. and essays. You get the idea). In his essay “Resuming the Pleasure” Harrison writes
I do, however, value the experience when Peter speculates aloud why I like a particular wine so much. It’s really not adequate at times for me to merely say “yummy” or “mother dawg.” It’s fun to talk about wine without saying, “There’s a chiaroscuro of flavors here reminiscent of the colors of a fledgling finch, or perhaps the saddle of Lucrezia Borgia.”