Caravaggio’s Characteristics & Method

Caravaggio's Characteristics

Caravaggio made paintings unlike any other artists before him. From the way he depicted his subjects, the style he painted in, or the method he used, he was in a league of his own.


His subject matter ranged from still life and genre scenes, to religious stories. All of his work used an intense realism that brought life to his plants and personality to his figures. This intense realism was not always appreciated. Showing divine figures as he imagined them as mortals was described as “sacrilege, vulgar, and disgusting”.

Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro is what makes him instantly recognizable. His figures are set against a dark background and lit by a single source. This creates a heavy contrast between light and dark. Highlights seem brighter and shadows deeper. Figures are illuminated like actors on a stage.

Often, the dramatic scenes go beyond the picture frame. Outstretched arms reach out to the viewer, or bowls of fruit sit on a table, about to fall off, as if asking the viewer to push it forward.

Caravaggio's Method

Caravaggio was working in a very different manner than most artists before him. Unlike other popular artist’s like Michelangelo and da Vinci, Caravaggio did not paint frescos. He painted with ground oils on linen canvas. This alone could be a major difference, but it is not all.

Art Historians can go back and view many preparatory sketches by Michelangelo to get further insight into his work. It is usual for artists to do dozens of sketches and drawings to get the details of complex compositions worked out before they execute the finished painting.

However, Caravaggio was not the usual artist. Instead of producing drawings, Caravaggio painted from live models. He would start with dark brush strokes sketching the outlines of the composition. Bright highlights would be added with white lead paint to start the process of creating depth. The outlines of figures would be incised in the wet paint using the back of the brush. These lines can still be seen if you look closely at a Caravaggio painting.

View the Chronology of Caravaggio's Works

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