What is Leonardo da Vinci Sfumato Technique?

Sfumato Art Technique by Leonardo da Vinci – Sfumato (Italian: [sfuˈmaːto], English /sfuːˈmɑːtoʊ/) is one of the four canonical painting modes of Renaissance art (alongside cangiante, chiaroscuro, and unione).

four canonical painting modes of Renaissance artThe word “sfumato” comes from the Italian language and is derived from “fumo” (smoke, fume). “Sfumato” translated into English means soft, vague or blurred.
In Italian the word is often used as adjective (like “biondo sfumato” for pale blonde hair) or as verb (“l’affare è sfumato” would mean the deal has gone up in smoke).

Sfumato is the art-technique developed by the legendary Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci which aims to create a whole different look-and-feel in the painting.

The technique of sfumato is rendering the object’s color and detail as it receded in distance. Da Vinci additionally turned to science to perfect his paintings. His study of nature and anatomy came in handy for his stunningly realistic paintings and his dissections of the human body helped his accurate depictions of human figure.
He was also the first artist to study human physical proportions and used them to determine the “ideal” human figure; unlike many of the artists in his time, such as Michelangelo who painted very muscular figures.

Mona Lisa - Lisa del Giocondo most Famous Leonardo Da Vinci PaintingsSfumato technique is mostly known for its use for the masterpiece Mona Lisa.
Italian sfumare, “to tone down” or “to evaporate like smoke
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Sfumato’s use in Mona Lisa is mainly at the corner of her lips and her eyes where the attempting to soften the outlines has left us perplexing if the woman is actually smiling or not.

Detail of the face of Mona Lisa showing the use of sfumato, particularly in the shading around the eyes.

Leonardo practiced Sfumato on many other paintings before he mastered it in Mona Lisa.

Virgin Of The Rocks painting is regarded as a perfect example of Leonardo’s “sfumato” technique.

Leonardo Da Vinci Vergine delle Rocce in Louvre.jpg

The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre is considered by most art historians to be the earlier of the two and date from around 1483–1486. Most authorities agree that the work is entirely by Leonardo.  

It is about 8 cm (3 in) taller than the London version. The first certain record of this picture is in 1625, when it was in the French royal collection. It is generally accepted that this painting was produced to fulfill a commission of 1483 in Milan. It is hypothesised that this painting was privately sold by Leonardo and that the London version was painted at a later date to fill the commission.

Sfumato is one of the main four canonical painting modes of the Renaissance period:

  • Alongside cangiante;
  • Chiaroscuro;
  • Unione;
  • Sfumato.

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Oxford dictionary states Sfumato as “the technique of allowing tones and colours to shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms”.

For general understanding, Sfumato is a technique of using colors in a way to blur the clear hard lines and deliver a smooth picture.

Sfumato Technique

This technique sometimes makes a picture somewhat foggy but has produces great appearance overall.

Sfumato even softens the area of face where the hard lines usually appears naturally. Thus, the blurry effect puts us keep looking at the picture trying to find out what is ‘wrong’ with the picture.

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The technique is a fine shading meant to produce a soft, hard to perceive transitions between colours and tones, in order to achieve a more believable image. It is most often used by making subtle gradations that do not include lines or borders, from areas of light to areas of dark. The technique was used not only to give an elusive and illusionistic rendering of the human face but also to create rich atmospheric effects. Leonardo da Vinci described the technique as blending colours, without the use of lines or borders “in the manner of smoke”.
Leonardo da Vinci and other practitioners

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) became the most prominent practitioner of sfumato – his famous painting of the Mona Lisa exhibits the technique. Leonardo da Vinci described sfumato as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane”.

Apart from Leonardo, other prominent practitioners of sfumato included Correggio, Raphael and Giorgione. Students and followers of Leonardo (called Leonardeschi) also tried their hands at sfumato after Leonardo: artists such as Bernardino Luini and Funisi.

More reading about …Leonardo’s masterful technique
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