Definition,Characteristics of Renaissance Oil Painting Technique.

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Mona Lisa (1503-6) Louvre, Paris.
By Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the
great pioneers of sfumato.


Definition & Characteristics

In fine art, the term "sfumato" (derived from the Italian word fumo, meaning "smoke") refers to the technique of oil painting which colours or tones are blended in such a subtle manner that they melt into one another without perceptible transitions, lines or edges. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) himself described sfumato as a blending of colours "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke." It is as if a veil of smoke has been placed between the painting and the viewer, toning down the bright areas and lightening the dark ones, so as to produce a soft, imperceptible transition between the differing tones. Typically involving the use of a number of translucent glazes to create a gradual tonal spectrum from dark to light, Sfumato is classified as one of four painting modes of Renaissance art, the others being Unione, Cangiante, and Chiaroscuro.

John the Baptist (1513-16)
Louvre, Paris.
Another Leonardo masterpiece of
sfumato from the later period of
the Italian Renaissance.

Colour in Painting
Fresco Painting
Panel Painting.

Painters Who Used Sfumato

Not completely mastered until the era of High Renaissance painting, sfumato's greatest exponent was Leonardo da Vinci, as exemplified by his composition Virgin of the Rocks (1483-5, Louvre, Paris; National Gallery, London) and his world famous portrait of the Mona Lisa (c.1503, Louvre, Paris), whose facial features and smile is rendered with the type of extremely gentle shading which is so typical of this painting technique. Sfumato was also mastered by the Florentine Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517), the Venetian painter Giorgione (1477-1510), the Emilian artist Correggio (1490-1534), and the Mannerist religious painter Federico Barocci (1526-1612) among others.

Other Renaissance Painting Techniques

Aside from sfumato, and also Unione, Cangiante, Chiaroscuro, and Tenebrism - whose main practitioners included Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael (1483-1520) and, somewhat later, Caravaggio (1571-1610) - Renaissance art of the quattrocento (15th-century) and cinquecento (16th-century) made a number of important contributions to the development of fine art painting. These included the mastery of linear perspective (painting 'depth'), and foreshortening, as well as advances in the depiction of light though space and its reflection from different surfaces, and in the achievement of much greater realism in easel-portraiture and still life. The naturalism of Baroque painting derived directly from this Renaissance realism. The Italian Renaissance also witnessed the completion of the switch from tempera painting to oil painting. The latter technique was first adopted by artists of the Netherlandish Renaissance (eg. Jan Van Eyck, Robert Campin, Roger Van Weyden, Hieronymus Bosch) and the German Renaissance (eg. Matthias Grunewald, Stefan Lochner, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Baldung Grien and Hans Holbein the Younger), before spreading to Italy. It was taken up most enthusiastically by painters of the Renaissance in Venice, whose damp climate was less suited to tempera, then Florence and Rome. (See also our fine art essay: How To Appreciate Paintings.)

For another painting method, see: Grisaille.

• For related terms, see: Painting Glossary.
• For more about fresco, oil and watercolour painting, see: Homepage.

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