Sfumato is all about not having distinct transitions from one colour or tone to another; harsh lines and borders and done away with. Instead, you’ll find that the colours and tones are subtly an effortlessly blended together to create a sort of hazy, smoky effect. The result of blending different tones together is that the lighter areas of the painting are toned down a bit and the darker areas are brightened up a bit. Using this technique enables painters to create a more accurate and realistic depiction of colour and light in their paintings. It also gives paintings more of an atmosphere and can give facial features more of an illusionistic feeling, while at the same time removing attention from what would otherwise be the painting’s focal point.
The most famous painter associated with this painting technique is Leonardo da Vinci. His painting Mona Lisa, arguably the most famous painting of all, showcases this technique. This painting is quite an early example of sfumato, but you can still see how different shades and tones blend into one another. Look at the painting and you’ll see there’s no definite transition from one colour or tone to another; all of the transitions are soft and undefined. Leonardo da Vinci described sfumato as a blending of colours ‘without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke’. Other famous painters who employed this technique include Raphael and Giorgione.
Sfumato is a painting technique used with oil paints, so you should be confident with oils before trying this technique out for yourself. It can be quite easy to do a sfumato painting and there are a few different ways of going about it. You can apply a thin, translucent glaze to the painting, which is how Leonardo da Vinci created the sfumato effect in his paintings. Alternatively you can use a dry-brush technique: once the painting’s nearly complete, simply load the end of your paintbrush with a dusting of dried oil paint and apply it over particular areas of the painting you want to be enhanced by sfumato. Another way to create this effect is to carefully smudge parts of the painting with your fingers or some rags. All three techniques can be employed in a single painting. As for colours, you want to use a variety of midtones to create a more subdued look; avoid using the brighter colours.