Each day, people from all over the globe travel to Paris to visit the most famous oil painting in the world, the Mona Lisa. Many are just curious, and want to see the real thing for themselves. Some admire the famous enigmatic smile, the perfect proportions and ideal composition of the piece. Still others seek to explore some of the fantastical and mysterious claims about the fine art oil painting. Unfortunately, the painting is behind thick glass and a wooden railing keeps everyone a good distance away. The huge crowds create additional obstacles to close inspection. It’s too bad, for Leonardo was the most prominent practitioner of a painting technique known as “sfumato,” which translates literally as, “gone up in smoke.”
|Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, oil painting.|
Leonardo himself described the sfumato technique as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the picture plane.” During the Renaissance, oil painting underwent radical changes as artists learned to manipulate the new theories of linear perspective to create ever greater depth of space and lifelike images. So, in one sense, the quest to eliminate the flatness of the painting surface, and indeed the picture plane itself, from an image could be considered a natural outgrowth of those investigations. However, taken in the context of the time, it was still a rather radical idea, if it could be achieved at all. Leonardo came closer than anyone else with his Mona Lisa.
It has been discovered that he applied very thin, nearly transparent layers of oil paint with his fingers over many months to slowly build up the glowing, softly focused image of Mona Lisa: from 20 to as many as 40 layers of paint. This technique allowed him to not only realistically duplicate the translucency of skin, but also to create such a lifelike presence that she appeared to actually be in the room, as if she were sitting in a window.
To paint on a flat surface a vision of someone not confined to that surface required the artist to hold two paradoxical thoughts in mind simultaneously–flatness, but with the illusion of realistic three-dimensional form. Leonardo had the genius of his vision and sfumato technique gave him the means to get there. Today, we build easily on the pioneering artistic advances he invented, and for that we owe him a debt of gratitude.
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–John and Ann