Sfumato Technique in Oil Painting

A lesser known oil painting technique than glazing, impasto or alla prima, is sfumato, which describes an oil painting completed with few discernible outlines. Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait paintings exhibit this effect, particularly in the Mona Lisa. With such an incredible range in tonal values where each seems to melt into the other, how can sfumato be achieved in painting?

Meaning of Sfumato

Taken from the Italian word for ‘light-dark’, sfumare, sfumato is all about that: vast tonal variations that fit smoothly together with no seams. Sfumato has the visual texture of smoke, where visual features of the portrait morphs into shadow. The outlines of the Mona Lisa’s face would be difficult to discern, only guessed at. There are no harsh lines, only ghostly tonal areas that cohere when viewing the painting from afar.

My ebook on how to paint Sfumato.

Secrets to Getting Sfumato Effect in Painting

There is no one way of getting the subtle effects of sfumato. In fact, several oil painting techniques can be used in the same painting. The application of fine glazes is one such way, where the underpainting is modified, smoothed over and perfected with each subsequent glaze of oil paint. The glaze must be quite translucent, in that a fair amount of oil (with a little artist solvent mixed in) is added to the skin color. Fine sables and walnut or linseed oil would be used.

Appropriate mixes of the paint, whether skin-colored or shadowed, are added to the art medium to create a smooth, transparent glaze and then applied to select area of the portrait. Each glaze conceals little imperfections and brush-marks beneath. Soft rags and fingers can be used to smooth over the paint layer, to create a soft sheen.

Dry Brushing Sfumato

As well as glazing, I incorporated another method, into sfumato, which is dry-brushing, a means I have used when painting the Mona Lisa for one of my art instruction books. In the closing stages of the painting, I would ‘dust’ a tiny amount of oil paint onto the bristle-ends of a fine but firm brush. Ox hair or stiff sable would be suitable.

Shading Technique with Sfumato

The paint, whether dark or pale, would be lightly shaded over the area concerned, creating effects like soft charcoal. Outlines are concealed and depth in tones reinforced. With each layer of the oil paint, the pigment has more significance, in that the upper layer of paint requires just the smallest touches to get effective sfumato effects. Dry brushing can be conducted on large areas of the painting, as well as detail. It can be seen in this image, near the end of the painting session, a dry, cakey-mixture of the paint was applied around the crucial features of the face, such as the rims of the eyes and the mouth. But this shading technique was also used around the flatter planes, such as the brown and cheekbones, where the edges are shaded out.

How to do Sfumato

Only the smallest amount of paint is needed for the dry-brushing technique. As can be seen on the image above, scrubbing a little neat oil paint onto a white piece of paper creates unrefined shading. But applied over the upper glazes of the oil paint, merges into the underlying paint color, to create soft, almost airbrushed effects.

Sfumato Tips in Art

Sfumato is an oil painting technique mostly associated with Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, where outlines to the face cannot be discerned, only soft gradations in shadow. Various art techniques can be used to achieve great sfumato, such as the application of thin glazes, as Leonardo did; smudging techniques with the use of rags and fingers, and finally, a means of dry-brushing a fine, cakey mixture of the oil paint over select areas of the portrait. The thin paint is lightly scrubbed on in the manner of a soft pencil or charcoal.

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Copyright 2013 Rachel Shirley