What does chiaroscuro mean?

Word count: 248 words

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

If you increase your vocabulary you’ll not only help your reading, you’ll also make your writing more precise. Here is my word of the week.

Richard Wagamese  is an author and journalist from the Ojibway Wabasseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario. His charming and heartfelt novel, Ragged Company, tells the story of four homeless people who win a $13 million lottery. Although at times lyrical, the book generally keeps to a very basic vocabulary. Except, once. Wagamese pulls out a word I’d never heard before — chiaroscuro. Here’s how he uses it:

We store them like pocket treasures, reassured by their weight, their heft, and the knowledge that though they may be smoothed by time, they bear the same stories, the same unrelenting hold, the same timeless chiaroscuro they were born in. 

Chiaroscuro is, generally, an art term meaning, light-dark. It is derived from the Italian word chiaro meaning “light” and oscuro meaning “dark.” Artists such as Rembrandt (shown above, in a self-portrait) used the technique to show off the features of a face in area that was lighted, and to achieve a calm and soothing effect in the darkened one.

Wagamese uses the word in a less literal fashion, referring instead, I think, to the texture of our lives — good and bad, light and dark, happy and sad.

Scroll to Top