What’s Sfumato with You?

The Mona Lisa … Gone Up in Smoke

Mona Lisa | Leonardo da Vinci | Oil Painting | Artists Network | Sfumato
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, oil painting
Each day, people from all over the globe travel to Paris to visit the most famous oil painting in the world, the Mona Lisa. Many are just curious, and want to see the real thing for themselves. Some admire the famous enigmatic smile, the perfect proportions and ideal composition of the piece. And others seek to explore some of the fantastical and mysterious claims about this masterpiece. Unfortunately, the oil painting is protected behind thick glass, and a wooden railing keeps everyone a good distance away. The huge crowds create additional obstacles to close inspection. Not being able to properly inspect this piece up close is just too bad. You see, Leonardo was the most prominent practitioner of a painting technique known as “sfumato,” which literally translates as, “gone up in smoke.” Read on to learn more about this technique.

Sfumato and da Vinci

Da Vinci himself described the sfumato technique as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the picture plane.” During the Renaissance, oil painting underwent radical changes as artists learned to manipulate the new theories of linear perspective to create ever greater depth of space and lifelike images. In one sense, the quest to eliminate the flatness of the painting surface, and indeed the picture plane itself, from an image could be considered a natural outgrowth of those investigations. However, taken in the context of the time, it was still a rather radical idea — if it could even be achieved at all. Nonetheless, the Italian Master came closer than anyone else with his Mona Lisa.

The Power of Layering

Historians discovered da Vinci applied very thin, nearly transparent layers of oil paint with his fingers over many months to slowly build up the glowing, softly focused image of Mona Lisa. In fact, he would apply 20 to as many as 40 layers of paint. This technique allowed him to not only realistically duplicate the translucency of skin, but also to create such a lifelike presence that the subject appeared to actually be in the room, as if she were sitting in a window. To paint on a flat surface a vision of someone not confined to that surface required the artist to hold two paradoxical thoughts in mind simultaneously — flatness, but with the illusion of realistic three-dimensional form.
Sfumato | Oil Painting | Leonardo da Vinci
Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, oil on panel (transferred to canvas); another example of da Vinci’s use of sfumato
Leonardo had the genius of his vision. The sfumato technique gave him the means to get there. Today, we build easily on the pioneering artistic advances he invented. And for that, we owe him a debt of gratitude. For more interesting articles, demonstrations and interviews with prominent artists, join us on The Artist’s Road. –John and Ann

Master the Techniques of the Masters

Ready to learn another Old Master oil painting method? Why not try your hand at glazing? Artist and art conservator, Michael Wilcox, explains how to master this technique in his book, which is simply titled Glazing. “Early Masters such as Rembrandt applied multiple layers of transparent paint to produce the deep, glowing hues and darks which typified their work; darks which seethed with hidden [color],” explains Wilcox. “The range of rich hues employed by these earlier painters gave a mysterious depth and intensity to their work, a richness and luminosity which only the glazing techniques can give.” Ready to apply this masterful touch to your next oil painting? Get your copy of Glazing here!   Save Save

3 thoughts on “What’s Sfumato with You?

  1. Carito Salazar says:

    Hello, I did not know about the technique with fingers, sounds interesting. I had read that he applied a technique very similar to the Flemish by multiple layers. You know a painter who currently use the technique of sfumato as Da Vinci and explain it in detail? thanks

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