Sfumato is a painting technique which involves blending the edge between colors so that there is a soft transition. The term “sfumato” is Italian which translates to soft, vague or blurred.

The technique was popularized by the old masters of the Renaissance art movement, like Leonardo da Vinci, who used it to create atmospheric and almost dreamy depictions. Da Vinci described the technique as…

“… without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane”.

It is considered to be one of four painting techniques used by the old Renaissance masters, with the others being cangiante, chiaroscuro and unione.

Examples of Sfumato

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most famous examples of the sfumato technique in action, particularly around the subject’s face.

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c.1503
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c.1503

In the close-up below, notice the soft transitions between light and dark tones and the lack of hard edges. The result is a very smooth appearance. The opposite of this would be the broken color used by the Impressionists, which featured thick texture and rough edges.

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c.1503–06 - Detail

Below is another example of sfumato by da Vinci. The soft transitions in color used around the face depict a sense of youth and innocence about the subject. There is also a powerful contrast between these soft transitions and the sharp edge which separates the subject from the black background.

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, 1489-1490
Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, 1489-1490

In the painting below, sfumato is used to gently bring the subject forward from the black background.

Giorgione, Youth Holding an Arrow, 1505
Giorgione, Youth Holding an Arrow, 1505

Tips for Using Sfumato

Here are some tips for using sfumato in your paintings:

  • The technique is often used to soften the transition between light and dark areas, but you could also use it to transition between different colors of a similar value.
  • In the above examples by the old masters, the technique is a key feature of the paintings. But you could also use the technique in less prominent ways, like to create a sense of atmosphere in your background.
  • It is generally considered an oil painting technique, but you could also use it with other mediums. It just favors oils because of the slow drying time.
  • For a smoother transition between colors, use a soft-haired brush (preferably natural hair like mink).

Want to Learn More?

You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.

Thanks for Reading!

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

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Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page.

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