Pastel Painting With Sfumato | Putting a Renaissance Painting Idea Into Practice

The great master artist of Western Renaissance painting, Leonardo da Vinci, was an advocate of what he referred to as painting with sfumato: that is, painting without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane. The term is derived from the Italian word sfumare, which means to tone down, to evaporate like smoke, or to go up in smoke. Instead of indicating hard edges, sfumato painting relies on soft edges—subtly gradated transitions between areas of differing color and tonal value. When properly applied, it enhances the illusion of atmospheric depth without compromising the structural integrity of the objects within a painting.

pastel landscape by Richard Mckinley

My painting, A Place of Reflection (en plain air pastel on UArt paper, 12×18), typifies my sfumato approach. I started the piece with a few soft indications of the major value shapes, underpainted by wetting applied pastel with SpectraFix fixative, and then completed it with subtly bridged transitions of over-painted pastel.

Sfumato Approach to Painting: Since my introduction to the term back in the late 1970s, the concept of sfumato has been a major component in my painting tool-kit. A few of the ways it influences my approach are:

  • Instead of starting a pastel painting with an overly defined drawing made up of sharp edges, I prefer to simplify the scene to a few simple abstract shapes and softly indicate them upon the painting’s surface. By varying pressure while drawing, a coloring book effect is avoided and a sense of atmospheric depth is indicated.
  • I utilize a smeared or wet underpainting to mass in the large shapes of color and value. The more the underpainting produces soft edges, the better the sfumato effect. Even when complementary color schemes are to be used for later over-painting effects, the value transition between the underpainting areas is kept soft. (See a full demonstration of my underpainting techniques in this art instructional video.)
  • When applying the pastel over-painting, I attempt to use subtle bridging techniques that rely on a gradual transition between colors and tonal values. It may be hardly perceivable but allows the viewer’s eye to travel between objects and areas without losing their character and enhances the appearance of form and depth. (See the article on “Visual Bridging” to learn more about this pastel blending technique.)

When applying da Vinci’s theory, remember this old painting adage, “Unless you are painting a knife blade or a piece of paper, soften its edges!” The sfumato effect (as if through smoke and fumes) is the key. Plus, it sounds better than, “Make it fuzzy.”



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