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Sfumato: Renaissance Drawing & Painting Mode


Renaissance Drawing  & Painting Technique: Sfumato

Peperomia with pink background&text           

   Pencil refers to learning how to use graphite to depict various values and colors. The stroke is continuous tone and is called “Sfumato,” to make smokey (pronounced SFoo-Ma-toe).  The object is to apply graphite smoothly so that no texture is observed and no hard outlines (as in a coloring book). The technique demonstrates how a smooth transition of values helps to establish a better sense of form without revealing texture. Areas blend into one another through minuscule strokes, which helps to make the image rather hazy. Texture should refer only to the surface of the subject that has established its form.  Sfumato is the most sensitive and subtle form of shading and very often seen in the old master drawings and paintings.


At the Academy of Botanical Art students are first most concerned with how they handle the pencil and paper together to achieve a “Sfumato” effect. Pencil technique and understanding the concepts of“Five Elements to Geometric Form” is the beginning most important aspect of the Academy teachings.  The ability to render subjects competently is the goal of the whole program.

Here we see two pieces of  art work of a former student and Academy graduate,

Julia Rega, who at the age 16 completed these pieces shown and other beautiful work.

Her beautiful pencil work was was so developed that it translated to beautiful brush strokes in painting.

Sagittaria montevidensisbyRega

To use the “Sfumato” pencil stroke to model your image, begin practicing the stroke by making a “tonal scale.” Break the scale into numbered sections from 0-10: Black has the lowest darkest value = 0 and White has the highest lightest value 10. When working with your values, t hink in terms of these numbers. It will help you to learn how to use them to create not only the images in your paintings, but the mood as well. Begin with a very light value throughout the scale and then return to the beginning to apply layers. In other words, tone 0-10, then 0-9, then 0-8, then 0-7, then 0-6, then 0-5, then 0-4, then 0-3, then 0-2, then 0-1, then 0-0. Avoid creating a shine by keeping your pencil sharp.

Tonal Scale Bar

Pencils range from 9B to B (They are “B” for Black and are soft and appear dark).  Then in the middle “F” for fine ad “HB”. Then progress to H to 9H. (“H” is for Hard and they appear light.) You can try this with five pencils (i.e., 4B, 2B, HB, 2H, 4H).  These five pencils are in the middle of the full range of pencils offered.

Leonardo da Vinci pioneered the technique of Sfumato in order to soften the transition from light to dark. In his notes on painting he says that light and shade should blend “without lines or borders, in the manner that is gradually vanishes like smoke. (Sfumato is derived from Italian sfumare, “to tone down” or “to evaporate like smoke”.) 

In painting, Sfumato typically involves the use of several translucent glazes of subtle shades and tones of colors to create a gradual tonal spectrum from dark to light, thus eliminating undesirable sharp contours. The application of these subtle shifts in color and values acts as a veil of smoke and thus tones down any bright areas while at the same time lightening dark ones.  The effect produces a soft appearance on the surface of the subject.  Other Renaissance masters used the technique such as Giorgione (1477-1510) and Correggio (1490-1534) to name only a few. The technique is also used in graphite and charcoal and can be seen in Leonardo’s drawings. Sfumato is classified as one of four painting modes of Italian Renaissance art, the others being Unione, Cangiante, and Chiaroscuro.

Mona Lisa

       The Sfumato technique was used for a highly illusionistic rendering of facial features and for atmospheric effects. Leonardo’s advanced style of painting with this innovative shading technique is seen in his full-scale study for The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. The Sfumato technique as used in his masterpiece Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) produces her famous ‘enigmatic’ smile, subtle shading on her face and gentle transition into the far ground. The same smooth blending of colors and surface are seen in the graceful “disegno” (design) and “colorito” (color pigments) of his Lady with an Ermine. Only three examples of the finest use of the Sfumato technique, but examples of how it revolutionized portraiture and influenced generations of artists to follow.


An important note here is that Leonardo’s Renaissance drawings, also employing the Sfumato technique, stimulated both fellow artists to make similar preparatory studies for their paintings, and patrons to collect them.  Students at the Academy are taught that they are creating “fine art drawings”  and not just “sketches” that they will treat as unimportant. Beautiful studies are a collection in themselves.  

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year to all.

God bless. OM


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