Sfumato is the term for the blending of colours or tones so subtly that there is no perceptible transition.

Pronunciation: sfoo.mah.toe

When I saw the Mona Lisa being displayed in the Louvre, it was under tight security.

In fact, with the crowds and security I could hardly see this painting at all. Darn it.

But the most wonderful example of sfumato can really be seen in Leonardo's Mona Lisa.

And I'm sorry to say that I can see it here on this blog more easily than in person.

In Italian, sfumato means "smoky" and is derived from the Italian word fumo meaning 'smoke.'

Leonardo da Vinci described sfumato as "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane."

There are NO hard edges in nature!

Areas blend into one another through miniscule brushstrokes, which makes for a rather hazy, albeit more realistic, depiction of light and color.

Sfumato is a painting technique - not necessarily a technique in drawing as seen in the hard and soft edges of Leonardo's self portrait in sanguine chalk (above).

This photo was taken during X-ray fluroscence spectrometry directly on the painting at the Louvre.

In response to an interesting comment below I posted this additional photo (above) as a good example of both hard and soft edges in one painting.

Hard and soft edges are relative:

When I said that there are no HARD edges - what I meant was that if you look at an old master painting with a magnifying glass, the edge of the object turns in space and is "lost" into the background. There is no EXACT place that you could pinpoint where the edge separates from the background.

A softer edge is why an oil painting looks so very different than a cutout paper glued onto a background - with no blending of the edges.


Painted edges can be either "hard" or "soft"....but even within the "hard" edges - they are (maybe even microscopically) "soft." It is the nature of oil paint to do this when a brush is dragged between two wet edges. When you're painting an edge on a dry area of a painting - it is a good idea to re-wet the dry area (be sure to match the paint exactly) and get that edge blended (choose hard or soft - but choose).


I find it beautiful when the artist "pushes the edges" in both directions in the same painting for contrast. If DaVinci does it - you can too - and it will give your painting that Old Master's touch.

You can see a "hard" edge in the veil - the veil becomes a "hard edge" compared to the sufmato edge - but it is still a "soft edge" as compared to a cutout-and-glued-on edge.

Detail showing contrast between "hard" veil edge & "soft" cheek edge.

Granny D is 99!

Is 90 the new 40? Maybe...

Several hundred people gathered last week at the New Hampshire Statehouse to honor and celebrate the life of the state’s, indeed the nation’s, best known political activist, Granny D.

Long before her famous walk across the country at the age of 90, Doris “Granny D” Haddock was an activist.

In Alaska, she helped save a native village from destruction by nuclear bomb testing.

With her feisty, unrelenting and passionate advocacy for participatory democracy, this five-foot-tall great grandmother is a role model for people of all ages.

I have great respect for this tough cookie who demands that Washington lawmakers clean up their act.

90 year old "Granny D" walked 3,200 miles from California to Washington, D.C. to dramatize the need to restore representative government in America and reduce the role of special interest money in politics.

"Doris Haddock set out to walk across America to protest the betrayal of democracy by money in politics. That mission she accomplished...This is no "innocent" grandmother naively protesting a cause...Granny D is a seasoned activist, an eloquent speaker and writer and an acute observer of the world around us."
-Bill Moyers, Journalist

"Granny D, the crusader for campaign finance reform, is such an adorably 'sweet old lady' that one forgets how tough she has been and how consistent she has been. You want to know where to get the strength, courage and optimism to keep fighting for change? Watch 'Granny D Goes to Washington.' The documentary of her work is inspiring."
-Molly Ivins, syndicated columnist

Grab a copy of today's NY Times!

If you can find it, today's NY Times has a special 32 page section on Museums!

Special Section today on 
Thursday, March 19, 2009

This is what it looks like. It is a great issue!

32 pages

This is full of articles, pictures, collections and shows.

It features museums all over the world.

The ads are as interesting as the articles.

I hope you can find a copy.

Most public libraries in the US have copies of daily newspapers. 

If you ask, maybe you can get it when they're ready to toss out the older issues.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

This is the day where EVERYBODY is Irish. And no one's as Irish as Barack O'Bama.

Can you listen to this without wanting to dance?

The Corrigan Brothers from Moneygall, Ireland, came together four years ago as "Hardy Drew and the Nancy Boys." Their song, "There's No One as Irish as Barack O'Bama" catapulted them to worlwide fame.

Moneygall is a small village in County Offaly, Ireland. It has a population of approximately 300 people, has a Roman Catholic Church, five shops, a post office, school, police station and two pubs.

President of the United States Barack Obama's great-great-great grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, emigrated from Moneygall to New York City at the age of 19 in 1850. He eventually resettled in Indiana. Kearney's father had been the village shoemaker, then a wealthy skilled trade.

Some Lighting Q and A

Vanessa wrote and asked me some questions about the lighting equipment I use for making photographic reference material for a painting. (Her Q's in grey and her original post here). 

I thought that a public answer was a good way to clarify and expand some more information with all of you.

Vanessa: I need one light source strong enough for head and shoulder that can also softly fade down a full-length dress should I need it to.

Yes, I think that a single source of light the best way to photograph a subject for a reference as in the photos above and below. Whether it is a full figure or just a head, the light needs to flow from top to bottom.

Vanessa: I have been looking at a cool florescent daylight and stand with 4 150, or 250watt bulbs - it has a 44 x44 inch soft box. 

Some of these light can be off or on. Britek Pro 5000 produce these and sell them on www.lincoinc168.com (as in above photo).

I have a soft box and the lighting is good. However I quit using it because it doesn’t work well when I photograph children who seldom sit still (or adults who fidget).

Right now I’m shooting with a Nikon Speed light which acts like a strobe in that it freezes action, allows for a lower ASA/ISO (film speed) and a sharp focus.

I prefer a Nikon wireless speedlight commander SU-800 (above) which clicks into my camera and automatically controls the speedlight's flash unit.

I shoot into or through a white umbrella which diffuses the light.

For a small subject – like my Day Lily Still Life above – I sometimes use a hardware store clip-on light holder with a florescent bulb. This makes it easier to adjust, see and compose shadows as important design elements.

Really fancy complicated equipment can be overkill. My best advice is get clear about what in particular  you really need and go for the easiest and cheapest way to make that happen.

Vanessa: Firstly, do you like florescent for portrait photos?

Yes, fluorescent light is more diffused and thus creates a softer shadow. 

I find that my digital camera makes adjusting color a lot less fussy than it was when I was using my old film camera.

Note: I paint using overhead color-balanced fluorescent lighting so my hand does not cast a shadow on my painting surface.

Vanessa: Secondly, in your use of florescent would this light source be powerful enough - as it is not a strobe – what you see is what you get.

Yes, I have used florescent lighting for a figure - but the person must sit still. I was getting way too many blurry shots. But on the other hand, it is easier to see and setup compositional shadow elements when the light source is steady.

But because I now use a speedlight, I make a few test shots in order to properly position my light. When I shoot in my studio, I have a general idea of where the light work best as I have done it so many times.

On location shooting, I often test the lighting with a model before the scheduled shoot. As in the above photo, you can see that there are many ways to light a subject and all of them are probably "correct."

However, as a rule of thumb, it is probably a good idea to have the light positioned on the upper left side of the model - it usually works best there and is a good starting point.

Walk around a museum. Look at the lighting the Old Masters used. You can learn a lot from that.

Also, please note that I use a neutral background drape to shoot my subjects.

When I need a specific background, I shoot that separately and paint it in behind the subject. Getting the background and the foreground “right” is too difficult for one shot - at least for me.

I photographed the model above in my studio using my speedlight. I took many photos of the  background separately and combined some of the elements in order to portray the "character and feeling" of the location.

Vanessa: Thirdly, I would think it would be easier to concentrate on composition, expression, if one is not messing with lighting connections and strobe. Would you agree?

Yes definitely. Once you figure out how to use your equipment, you can easily set it up and use it without much of a fuss. But of course there is a learning curve with all new equipment.

Vanessa: Would you advice that at 30 lbs it might be too heavy for taking on location?

Basically I'm lazy. I like my equipment to be small and lightweight (think airline travel nowadays). My Speedlight and Commander are small enough to fit in my camera case. 

My light stand (model above) folds up along with the small size umbrella and will easily fit into my suitcase.

If I need to bounce light into a shadow area I can use any white object like a piece of paper, poster board, white sheet, etc.

Because I shoot in ambient light (as opposed to a darkened room) I usually don’t need to do this and my speedlight will give me the compositional shadows I need.

I just remember to take a few test shots, download them to a computer and take a peek to see what is happening with my shadows. 

Vanessa: Still lapping up your teaching and loving it.

Thanks, I hope it all helps.

The following pictures are examples of lighting that I like. I include them because it is easy to see the simplicity of it all on a monotone statue.

Don't forget that interesting clothing makes for an interesting painting.

I always try to aim the strongest light on the forehead and let it gently wash down the figure.

With a film camera I had trouble shooting a full figure because I needed to back up away from the model in order to lessen the lens distortion.

With my digital camera I can stand much closer to the model and don't need as large a space to shoot in.

Remember, in general,your light ought to be placed so that it falls strongly on the forehead of the subject being photographed.

You can see that Rubens painted the strongest thickest light on his daughter Clara's forehead.

Circular Reasoning

My little story on circular reasoning (in grey below) is really an excuse to show you this absolutely stunning collection of the complete photographic portfolio of Edward S. Curtis.

The photographs in this book are from the first decades of the 20th century . It is not only a valuable document to history but a stunning photographic series made under "difficult conditions" (I'm sure that is an understatement).

But alas, this book is out of print.

"Outlier" by Frederic Remington

It's late fall and the Indians on a remote reservation in South Dakota asked their new chief if the coming winter was going to be cold or mild.

Since he was a chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets. When he looked at the sky, he couldn't tell what the winter was going to be like.

Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he told his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the village should collect firewood to be prepared.

But, being a practical leader, after several days, he got an idea. He went to the phone booth, called the National Weather Service and asked, 'Is the coming winter going to be cold?'

'It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold,' the meteorologist at the weather service responded.

So the chief went back to his people and told them to collect even more firewood in order to be prepared.

A week later, he called the National Weather Service again. 'Does it still look like it is going to be a very cold winter?'

'Yes,' the man at National Weather Service again replied, 'it's going to be a very cold winter.'

The chief again went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of firewood they could find.

Two weeks later, the chief called the National Weather Service again. 'Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?'

'Absolutely,' the man replied. 'It's looking more and more like it is going to be one of the coldest winters we've ever seen.'

'How can you be so sure?' the chief asked.

The weatherman replied, 'The Indians are collecting firewood like crazy.'

Symmetry Is For Animals...


It is said that in order to paint well, you must learn to see.

And it's not as easy as you'd think. Most of us "see" - but we don't "observe."

Rule #1 
Assume nothing.

When you are struggling for a likeness, make it a point to observe each side of the face separately.

Never ever assume that one side of a person's face looks like the other side.

Thanks to the miracle of Photoshop, I have "rearranged" Hillary's face, i.e., put right sides with right sides and left sides with left sides.

As you can see, her unique likeness gets completely lost when I do this.

Rule # 2 
Assume nothing.

Even cute little Ryan has an asymmetrical face. And the older a baby gets, the more asymmetrical they become.

I think that asymmetry is one of the things that make us human.

Mother nature reserves symmetry for animals...not people. 

Maybe that is why animals are so much easier to draw and  "likeness" is seldom such an issue with a portrait of your pooch, goldfish, gerbil or cow.

So if you want to draw or paint people really well, you have to learn to "observe" each side of the face and see what is really there.

Rules Review: 
Never assume anything is "true" unless you observe it to be so.