What’s Sfumato with You?

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.
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.

For more interesting articles, demonstrations and interviews with prominent artists, join us on The Artist’s Road.

–John and Ann



Related Posts:


Oil Painting Blog
John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

2 thoughts on “What’s Sfumato with You?

  1. Hello, I did not know about the technique with fingers, sounds interesting. I had read that he applied a technique very similar to the Flemish by multiple layers. You know a painter who currently use the technique of sfumato as Da Vinci and explain it in detail? thanks