Tenebrism, Horror, and Horror Art

A Style or a Technique?

image: Wikicommons

Tenebrism is a painting style that emphasizes light by creating deep shadows.

It is considered by some a variant of chiaroscuro and it was common in Baroque paintings. Among its most prominent painters were Caravaggio and El Greco.

Tenebrism comes from the Italian word tenebroso, indicating dark, gloomy, and mysterious. Just like horror fiction and horror art itself.

Is it a painting style or a painting technique? There is no debate; it is a painting technique.

art by Adam de Coster

However, it is a technique applied by several painters and adopted in other media like film and television, photography, and even sculpture.

Therefore, it is a technique that has evolved as a visual style also.

Although some art critics refer to it as “dramatic illumination”.

For example, look at the man on the left. He is about to sing. But you think, “he is up to no good”.

What makes tenebrism so recognizable is that it showcases human figures against a backdrop of intense darkness–the darkness as a frame that sharpens the emotions of the subject on the canvas.

Judgement of Judith by Caravaggio

In short, the subject is in a spotlight (usually candlelight, but it could be moonlight or a lantern), and everything around black.

Tenebrism is a specific way to use shadows in art. But, how is it different than chiaroscuro? Didn’t chiaroscuro do the same thing?

Yes, but, for what is worth, tenebrism is darker—Pitch black.

Hence, the perfect art style for horror.

Horror Art Lives in Darkness

image: Fiverr

Horror fiction is about scaring people. What can be scarier than the dark? It is a primal fear.

Likewise, horror fiction creates a specific mood of dread and anxiety, fright, and disgust. What can be more dreadful than absolute dark?

Answer: absolute dark that frames a monster.

Furthermore, monsters live in the shadows. Otherwise, how are they going to scare us? How are they going to surprise us? To catch us off guard? How?

image from the film Frankenstein

There is a reason horror films take place at night, with barely a moonlight or a flashlight for our heroes (or is that victims?) to see. What we can see in the sunlight does not scare us.

There is a reason vampires and werewolves hate the sunlight.

Similarly, there is a reason ghosts and boogeymen come out at night. In the daytime, they are not so scary.

Horror art is no different than horror fiction and cinema. It lives in the shadows. It thrives in them. It needs those shadows to create the right mood and setting.

image: Pinterest

And yet, horror art when combined with tenebrism goes further.

It encapsulates the monster into a bright spot with all its ugliness and terror. It enhances it. It makes it imposing, and formidable.

They say tenebrism creates a dramatic effect. What can be more dramatic than a horror creature staring at you surrounded by shadows?

Are you scared yet?

Tenebrism and Horror

image: Wallpaper Flare

By the way, tenebrism did not start as a horror art technique. It used shadows for emphasis, not to provoke fear.

In fairness, most tenebrism painters painted religious scenes and everyday scenes. Although, is it me, or do they favor the most violent, bloody scenes from the Bible? The crucifixion and martyrdom were popular topics.

Nevertheless, the tenebrism technique made those familiar scenes dramatically fearsome.

But let’s forget religious horror. What about horror fiction? The paranormal kind? With demons and ghouls?

Pinhead from the film Hellraiser

Tenebrism covers in shades and darkness but does not take away. Instead, it magnifies.

Furthermore, look at those everyday paintings. Out of context, even the most innocent scene feels sinister.

Cinema and television play with this technique a lot. And although I still believe grotesque and expressionism are more suitable for horror art, tenebrism has its place in it too.

Because horror shines best in dark shadows.

image from the film The Hallow (2015)

Call me blasphemous but, if Caravaggio, de la Tour, Van Honhorst, de Ribera, Gentileschi, and the rest were alive today, they would be painting Dracula, Pinhead, and Godzilla, not Jesus, Mary, and King David.

Who said tenebrism ended with the 1700s? Who said we cannot use it today? Good techniques and art styles are timeless.

In conclusion, tenebrism belongs to horror fiction and art. Bring the darkness on.

Reader, are you a fan of tenebrism in art?


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March 2023