Using a thoroughly modern medium like acrylic paint, doesn't mean you can't get the classic look of chiaroscuro.
I share my workflow for a chiaroscuro palette for flesh tones in acrylic paint - and a free downloadable cheat-sheet!
Chiaroscuro means strong contrast between light and dark. It was used by Renaissance and Baroque painters to create volume when painting three-dimensional objects and figures.
I've been desperate to master this effect in acrylics. For the skin tones in my last piece, I finally achieved the look I was aiming for - and it was a lot simpler than I imagined.
Roger de Piles Flesh Tone Palette
The inspiration for my acrylic chiaroscuro palette came from an extract from Roger de Piles Les Élémens de Peinture Pratique, (The Elements of Painting Practice) written in 1684 which I found whilst researching natural pigments.
The book is based on the notes de Piles made whilst translating Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy’s De Arte Graphica (1668) from Latin to French.
Roger de Piles (pronounced 'day peel') was a French painter, engraver, art critic and diplomat who lived in the latter part of the 17th century. De Piles introduced the term 'clair-obscur' (chiaroscuro), to highlight the effect of color in accentuating the tension between light and dark in a painting during his famous defence of Rubens in his book Dialogue sur le Coloris (Dialogue on Colours).
The website where I found the extract used examples of colours from their own oil colour range - the Roger de Piles Flesh Tone Palette but of course I needed to find acrylic equivalents. Several days of research later, I emerged with my own acrylic chiaroscuro flesh tone palette.
Acrylic Substitutes for 17th Century Oil Colours
My challenge was not only to find acrylic equivalents to the original earth pigment oil paints but to do so using the colours I already had in my studio.
Once I had assembled my colours, I made up the following variations according to de Piles' recommendations and stored them in my stay-wet palette.
Preparing the Flesh Tones
There are usually four light shades:
There are usually three halftones:
Chiaroscuro Flesh Palette in Action
It was fun and easy to paint the figure with this array of Chiaroscuro earth tones and I was really pleased with the result. For an even darker feel, I could have gone the whole Renaissance hog and underpainted with raw umber but for this piece I wanted to keep things a little lighter.
Get the Chiaroscuro Acrylic Flesh Palette cheat-sheet!
To make it easy for your to create your own Chiaroscuro flesh palette in acrylics, I've broken down all the steps in this PDF cheatsheet!