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.


Pierre said...

Hi thanks for this post.

You perfectly articulate the lamentable fact that it is impossible to actually see/admire/examine the paint surface of La Giaconda in person. And as you say, this task is much better accomplished in a book. Luckily i got to see it before the Da Vinci Code was published

One slight correction. You say that there are no edges in nature. Actually there are edges in nature, that's how we distinguish between objects in space, by perceiving the edges of various object. What I think you meant to say was that there are no outlines in nature.



My Painting Studio said...

Thanks Pierre. You have inspired me to post two additional photos (the last ones) and all the text inbetween is new.

Hopefully it is a better and more complete explanation of what I mean by "hard and soft" edges…and that no "hard" edges are found in nature.

lorna said...

Hello Karin,

Thanks for the blog, I am new to painting and i have learn so much from your postings. Thanks again

I have been trying to experiment with spotlighting but a don't think i have been too successful - Would you kindly shed some light on this topic

My Painting Studio said...

Dear Lorna,

Sorry it took me so long to find your post here. I am not sure what you mean by the term "spotlighting" - if you can explain it in an email, I'll try to either answer you or make it into information that everyone can use.

oilpnt (at) gmail (dot) com