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Tenebrism: Chiaroscuro Up to Eleven (Gerard van Honthorst, The Denial of Saint Peter)

A visual trope, using a stark contrast between dark and light in an image, usually for dramatic effect. Generally uses directional lighting and sharp shadows. Developed in the Renaissance for painting and became very popular among Baroque painters, all the way to the school known as "tenebrism". And never quite vanished since. (Wikipedia has more here.)

Film Noir is fond of it, but it is found in all sorts of works in visual media, whether constantly or to underscore moments of high drama. A great number of critics and satirists have pointed out that mainstream videogames and movies are drifting towards this.

A Face Framed in Shadow—half lit, half-shadowed—is often called chiaroscuro.

Games with Cel Shading tend to employ this with their shadows.

May combine with such tropes as Evil Is Not Well Lit, Conspicuously Light Patch, Woman in White, and By the Lights of Their Eyes.

Generally speaking, a work that combines dark brown or black shadows over much of the image with bright silver and gold (or flesh-tone) highlights is usually described as chiaroscuro.

The term comes from Italian, where it means "light-dark". Not to be confused with the ancient desert city of glass from the tabletop RPG Exalted. Or that rat from The Tale of Despereaux.

A Super-Trope to Dramatic Spotlight, Emerging From the Shadows.

Contrast Hollywood Darkness, when even the dark isn't dark. See also Mood Lighting and Color Contrast. Not to be confused with Grimdark, since this trope is typically used to highlight the bright spots.

Complete opposite of Nuclear Candle. For a video-game-specific trope, see Who Forgot the Lights?

Examples of Chiaroscuro include:

Anime and Manga


  • Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio liked to use this.
    • When paintings darken over time due to bleaching of colours and dirt sticking to the canvas, this is seems to be in play. For example, Rembrandt's Night Watch was originally a day scene.
  • The brothers Hildebrandt made extensive use of this style in their fantasy artwork.
  • As pictured above, the art style known as tenebrism (from the Italian word for "dark" and/or "murky") has this effect as its main selling point.

Comic Books

  • Hellboy, and many of the other works of Mike Mignola. After all, it is his Signature Style to have things largely defined by their shadows.
  • V for Vendetta used this heavily.
  • The climactic fight scene between the Spirit and the Octopus took place in a darkened room where the only light was a falling match.
  • From Bone, the night that the rat creatures attack Thorn's farm.
  • The cover of Fantastic Four #500, set during the rather dark Unthinkable storyline, appropriately featured the Four standing in darkness, lit only by Johnny's flames.
  • Sin City.
  • 100Bullets had a significant amount of this, with a signature design having a character shown entirely in black with only their eyes and teeth in white.


  • The Fountain is possibly the most chiaroscuro film ever made, in terms of brute force of imagery. All the swirly gold things and pitch black backgrounds were achieved with microphotography. Even the hospital is lit this way, with lots of dimly lit Moroccan screens, making it the most Awesome but Impractical hospital one is likely to visit. And also very hard to see.
  • Blade Runner, in the tradition of Film Noir, helped pave the way for many of the more Grimdark sci-fi films that followed it.
    • Partly justified in that everything in future LA seems to be powered by / lit by natural gas flares and strobe lights.
  • One version of this was from near the end of Apocalypse Now, when a swinging lightbulb throws the main antagonist's face into (changing) light and shadow.
  • Like many tropes, the usage of Chiaroscuro in film was widely popularized by Citizen Kane, although it was already common in German expressionist cinema.
  • Frequently used by Stanley Kubrick, particularly in Barry Lyndon, in which special lenses facilitated candlelight filming.
    • The use of light in that film becomes very notable to anyone with knowledge in lighting or photography. Most films use a ton of artificial light in scenes that are only supposed to be lit with a few candles, thanks to the technological limitations on cameras. However, Barry Lydon didn't use any artificial light, with the entire scenes sometimes being lit by a few candles. In order to achieve this, Kubrik had to use cameras intended for NASA during the Apollo moon landings.
  • Dark City uses chiaroscuro lighting in spots to achieve a Dieselpunk / Film noir effect.
  • The cellar scene from Signs. The lightbulb gets broken, so there's several tense seconds of pitch blackness, then they turn on two flashlights, which provide the only light for the remainder of the scene.
  • From Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Anakin's duel with Dooku. Their lightsabers provide the only illumination.
  • The entire second half of Pitch Black.
  • The Godfather films love this trope.
    • To the extent that in many cases it's so dark parts of the film remains un-exposed. This was why it has been problematic to transfer to DVD, as it's very hard for digital media to handle pitch black.[1]
  • The Silence of the Lambs plays with this liberally, mostly in the introduction of Lecter, but rather frighteningly in the climax, where Starling is illuminated through nightvision goggles, shown desperately lost in the darkness.
  • I Am Legend has it when Neville enters a building after his dog.
  • Serenity used this in the scene on Haven when Shepard Book is advising Mal.
  • Alien and its sequels
  • On this aspect, The Element of Crime is essentially Blade Runner turned up to eleven.
  • Last of the Mohicans, particularly the Fort scenes.
  • Inland Empire uses this to create an unsettling, dreamlike atmosphere.
  • Due to the low powered light sources and the pitch-blackness of the coffin, most, if not all of Buried is shot like this.
  • Peter Jackson pulled this off to a frightening degree of success during the scene that introduces Aragorn in his adaptation of The Fellowship Of The Ring.


Live-Action TV

  • CSI and its spinoffs use this in many scenes, usually accentuated by a strongly colored light.
  • Joss Whedon fell in sticky icky love with this trope.
    • Firefly: the ship was actually fully constructed and lighting was accomplished by sources available on the set. Often, in order to get light where it was needed, the lighting artists put little sheets of metal down to bounce the light from a lamp onto the actor.
    • Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel loved this. Is it meant to be scary? Then you can't see a dang thing.
    • Dollhouse makes use of this as well. For example, Ballard's confrontation with Dewitt occurs in an office that used to be well lit. Heck, that entire episode season show reflects its moral ambiguity in its dramatic lighting.
  • Whenever something appropriately dramatic happened in Star Trek the Original Series (Original Flavor), they framed Kirk's eyes with a band of light, the rest of his face in shadow. It was strange.
  • Supernatural, especially in the first two seasons, often had faces framed in shadow... even outside in the middle of the day.
  • Mad Men is a dark show, thematically. Beautiful people, beautifully lit.
  • Pushing Daisies uses this occasionally, both as a Homage and Affectionate Parody of Film Noir movies.
  • Space: 1999 (the first season) had this in spades. It was pulled off brilliantly and offset the white plastic sterile color scheme of Moonbase Alpha, fitting the somber, thought-provoking atmosphere of the first season. Unfortunately, for season 2, this moody lighting style disappeared along with Kano, Victor, and Paul.
  • The final scene in the Top Gear Middle East special, where the three presenters (playing the role of the Three Wise Men) bring their gifts to the stable, is lit with candles in this fashion. James May lampshades this in the episode commentary, remarking the scene is lit "like an old master."
  • The West Wing had a whole lot of this going on, especially during the quiet, character-driven or philosophical, conversational scenes which usually happened at night, at the end of the workday, where the only available lighting would be small office desk lamps, in contrast to the usually well-lit, daytime, hectic, energetic, plot-driven WalkAndTalks.


Tabletop Games

  • Exalted has the city of Chiaroscuro, which provides this effect in abundance.

Video Games

  • Left 4 Dead uses this to provide atmosphere, light, and to tell players to go. People tend to go towards the light because they can actually see what's there.
    • According to the developer blog and commentaries, the maps in Left 4 Dead were changed to promote, rather than fight against, this natural human inclination. For example, one of the maps that takes place in a city was originally designed to have most of the windows in buildings lit and bright, giving the impression that The Virus wiped everything out quickly. Changing the buildings to be without power made people move faster and more efficiently to the goal, which remained well-lit.
    • Plus, it's frickin' scary.
  • Kingdom Hearts probably fits this trope, though in limited doses in addition to the inversion of it.
  • In No More Heroes shadows are pitch black, even in the light of day.
  • Hotel Dusk: Room 215
  • Any sequence in an FPS where they make you use a flashlight.
  • Taken to the extreme in MadWorld for the Wii, where everything is black and white (and red).
  • The Big Reveal in BioShock (series) does this.
  • Okami and its sequel Okamiden make use of this, which is natural considering the art style is based on Japanese ink paintings. Shadows are pitch black, completely opaque, and flow like ink.
  • Mass Effect 2 is considerably Darker and Edgier than its predecessor, and tends to cover character's faces and environments in darker shadows. Mass Effect 3 takes it even further, with the inside of the Normandy now looking like a hollywood submarine.
  • Alan Wake
  • Most of the Silent Hill series.
  • As much of it takes place underground, Metro 2033 is prime for this. Most of the levels are dimly lit, and light is usually a sign of habitation... or danger. Especially bad in places where the mushrooms are the only source of light (aside from your headlamp), but they glow radioactive green, and indicate that you're going to suddenly die of radiation poisoning.
  • Zelda started using this for nighttime and cave areas in The Legend of Zelda the Wind Waker, and then expanded upon it for The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess, the latter of which uses shadow as a recurring motif. You're only decent light sources are the occasional torches and lanterns held by either the Moblins or Link; rushing through cave areas without carefully inspecting the lit-up path can lead to a tumble down a pit.

Web Comics

Web Original

  • Referenced in the Strong Bad Email Trogdor from Homestar Runner. Tasked to draw a dragon, Strong Sad, depressive nerd, draws a realistic picture and explains that he had used this technique.
  • Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog has this during the song, My Eyes. While watching from the street, Doctor Horrible sings about how soon "only darkness will remain." While he's doing this, a street light casts light on one side of his face, while the other is completely shadowed. When he mentions that "darkness is on the rise" he steps back, and out of the light, so that the only light striking him is a few feeble glimmers from a hobo fire.

Western Animation

  • Star Wars: Clone Wars: Anakin's knighting ceremony. A darkened chamber, with only the Jedi Council's lightsabers for illumination.
  • Samurai Jack: a fight between Jack and a Ninja, cast in lighting so harsh that everywhere is either very bright or pitch black. The Ninja is invisible when it's in the darkness. Jack pulls out his own ninja trick, becoming invisible in the light.
  • The French film Renaissance is nothing but black-on-white images.
  • Batman: The Animated Series, as to be expected considering its inspiration from Frank Miller.
  • My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic uses this as the darkness of a sleeping carriage when some characters want to sleep in "Over a Barrel".
  • In ThunderCats (2011), this is used in "The Duelist and the Drifter" while introducing the Duelist, and during the Drifter's Nameless Narrative. The figures are backlit, but their fronts (or their head and shoulders) are near-totally concealed in heavy shadow.
  1. MPEG-2 handles completely flat black very well. Where it tends to fall apart is when there's a little noise in the black - which tends to happen with under-exposed film or video.