Painting Magic with Sfumato

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In this pastel painting, I purposely employed the principle of sfumato.

Painting is a magic show. We are the illusionists. By arranging a pattern of shapes, values, and colors, we represent on a surface what is not really there. Ask viewers of your paintings: “What is it?” and they will respond with a description of the scene before them.  After a brief pause, inform them that it is indeed a depiction of those elements, but more importantly, it is a painting of those recognizable objects. As the painter, you have utilized the tools of your craft to express your impressions, ultimately communicating your intentions to your audience.

One of those tools, which can be traced back to the Renaissance, is the principle of sfumato, a Latin/Italian word derived from fumare, meaning “to smoke.” It denotes a painting technique in which there are no extreme darks and lights and no harsh/sharp outlined appearance. This lower-contrast, slightly blurred appearance creates a smoky effect, thus the name. It is as if a veil of smoke and fumes has drifted between you and the scene, creating a more realistic rendition of light and color.

The most famous proponent of sfumato was Leonardo da Vinci. There is probably no better example of its use than in his masterpiece, Mona Lisa. With its softness of edge and subtle transitions between value and color ranges, a lifelike quality is created that haunts many views to this day.

As pastelists, the practice of sfumota can easily be produced by gradually transitioning between values and colors, and by not over-delineating edges. Since pastel never dries, a gentle smudge of the edge between shapes, either with a light tapping of a finger or the gentle application of a transition tone (something that resides between the values and colors that are present) can create the sfumoto effect. Resist over-blending. Sfumato is not meant to produce a blurred appearance as if the scene is out of focus, but instead, the slight softness represented by atmospheric conditions. In landscape painting, a faint drifting in an up and down direction proves very useful in portraying these atmospheric effects.

There are many lessons to be learned from the painters of the past and sfumoto is definitely one of the most useful. Remember that what we view is always a distance from our eyes—we look through a veil of air and space to the objects of our attention. A subtle portrayal of the smoke and fumes that inhabit that air space can ultimately heighten the illusion of reality, placing you in the master magicians’ league.


Read Richard’s latest column about composition, called “Seeing the Big Picture,” in the February 2010 issue of The Pastel Journal now on sale.

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