What creatives can learn from Caravaggio

This article was first published in MM&M on June 7, 2019

If taking nearly four years of art history taught me anything, it was one of my favorite words in Italian: chiaroscuro.

The word itself is the juxtapositioning of two different root halves: “chiaro”—clear, bright, visible – and “scuro”—obscured, dark, hard to see. Put them together and it perfectly describes the use of shadow and light by Renaissance and Baroque masters to accentuate form, render anatomy and capture three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface.

If you’ve ever seen “The Conversion on the Way to Damascus” or “The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio, then you know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t, I urge you to swing by Rome and see them in person… or at least take 30 seconds to Google them.

There’s a reason Caravaggio’s work is so breathtaking. It’s alive and brims with contrast and dimension, simultaneously leaping off the wall and swallowing you into its depth. Whereas work that preceded it (particularly from the Gothic or Romanesque periods) often feels flat and more like an over-simplification of reality, he and his contemporaries embraced, and more fully explored, the vibrancy and drama of life.

Fast-forward about 400 years and you’ll be happy to know that the formula for compelling creative is largely the same. Great work needs contrast between light and darkness.

Think of some of the most culturally significant campaigns of the last decade, in which the brands are a beacon of light amidst a sea of darkness:

Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty celebrates a woman’s authentic self in a world filled with stereotyped perceptions of beauty.

Always’ #LikeAGirl calls BS on outdated perceptions of feminine strength and what it means to “be a girl.”

REI offers a breath of fresh air in its brave calling for a timeout on the madness and excess consumerism that is Black Friday (and our culture writ large).

This was yet another a-ha! moment that struck me while judging the Health Effies earlier this year and looking forward to the Cannes Health Lions. The strongest cases understood how to position their brands as a force for good—a light—against a clearly defined villain—a darkness.

Creating chiaroscuro—identifying something that is dark and bad, a legitimate problem—and positioning oneself in stark relief against it is an essential ingredient to get to breakthrough work. Sadly, it’s one of those boxes in the creative brief that, from my perspective, is often overlooked altogether or filled in as a matter of formality.

Here are a few of my favorite attempts at creating chiaroscuro over the years (and I work in health, so this is like shooting fish in a barrel):

“People just don’t feel like themselves when they have [insert disease/condition/ailment here]. Thanks to us, they’ll be back to being their best self!”

“When people have [insert disease/condition/ailment here], they have a hard time doing the things that matter most. Thanks to us, they’ll be back and living the life they want again!”

“People just don’t have the information they need to understand their [insert disease/condition/ailment here]. Thanks to us, they will be better informed and able to manage their condition better than ever before!”

“There’s so much information out there, that people with [insert disease/condition/ailment here] have a hard time managing it all. Thanks to us, they’ll have the information that matters!”

It’s easy to be critical – heck, I’ve probably written garbage like that before myself – but you’ll never get to great work if the creative “problem” your brand solves is really just a nuisance or minor annoyance. In most cases, there is probably a darker or more significant issue—and the opportunity to establish greater tension (and ultimately resolution) between it and the brand in question.

Here’s my advice: Don’t default to using the problem your brand or product solves as your “darkness” and your product attributes as the “light.” That’s lazy, and the resulting work from that brief will be dull and grey.

Look outside your category, try to see the whole human being that you’re trying to connect with, and think about what’s going on in his or her world. While it may take a bit more time and rigor to define something meaningful and anchored in culture or human behavior, it sharpens the creative challenge and provides contrast for a compelling idea.

To quote the cookie fortune that’s on my refrigerator: “Without darkness, light has no definition.”