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Cangiante: Renaissance Painting Mode

This month we discuss, CANGIANTE.  The term comes from the Italian “cangiare” that means, “to change”.  It is a way of rendering shadows by changing the color.   Cangiante is one of the four painting modes of the Renaissance (the other three being Unione, Chiaroscuro, and Sfumato as discussed in previous posts). This development in painting, came at a time when painters where presented with a limited color palette and to create contrasts in light and shadow through grey and black colour tones would not always have resulted in the desired effect and instead would result in rendering the shadow color dull. It has been argued that the artist’s intention was to render shadows in more pure colors.

Cangiante is characterized by the painter’s changing to a different, lighter, hue when the original hue cannot be made light enough or, on the converse, changing to a darker hue when the original hue cannot be made dark enough. The concept was first introduced by Giotto (1266 -1337) who is credited as introducing this technique.

Below in the image you see the use of various colors to aid in creating shadow effects.

This practice provided options for greater compositional color variety. It was often used for the drapery of Angels – the unnaturalness perhaps indicating unworldliness. In the limited pure color palette of the Cennini system (Cennino d’Andrea Cennini (c. 1360 – before 1427) the Italian painter  was greatly influenced by Giotto solution to shadows.  Around the turn of the 15th century, Cennini writes this in his “how to” book on late Medieval and early Renaissance art,

“If you follow the course of one man through constant practice, your intelligence would have to be crude indeed for you not to get some nourishment from it. Then you will find, if nature has granted you any imagination at all, that you will eventually acquire a style individual to yourself, and it cannot help being good; because your hand and your mind, being always accustomed to gather flowers, would ill know how to pluck thorns.” , Libro dell ‘Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook) by Cennino D’Andrea Cennini, page 15.1

According to Victoria Finlay, in her book Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox, the infamous UK forger, Eric Hebborn was greatly influenced by Cennino Cennini. In Hebborn’s last book  The Art Forger’s Handbook, Finlay writes that he “used and adapted Cennino’s advice extensively – preparing panels, tinting papers different colours, and making brand new works look as if they had been varnished some time before (by beating egg-white, left overnight and then painted on with a brush), just as the master advised.2

In Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s book “Il Libro dell’Arte” (The Craftsman’s Handbook), he states over and over again how to alter and “change” the colors to make the shadows. For example, he writes, “if you want to make a shot drapery for an angel in fresco, lay in the drapery in two values of flesh color, one darker and one lighter, blending them well at the middle of the figure. Then, on the dark side, shade the darks with ultramarine blue; and shade with terre-verte on the lighter flesh color, touching it up afterward in secco (dry). And know that everything, which you execute in fresco, needs to be brought to completion, and touched up, in secco with tempera. Make the lights on this drapery in fresco just as I have told you for the rest.”3

This kind of instruction on how to “alter” pigments is repeated throughout Cennini’s book where he advises to separate the values into different dishes. So in today’s language we can work up these various “shades” and “tints” with Black and White respectively, but also by using analogous colors. So that our reds can be shaded with darker reds, or tinted with lighter reds, all to help create a series of values for the color in question.

Keep in mind that, in the Renaissance, the available colors were severely limited in number and kind. Today, with a greater variety of paint colors at our disposal, a painter may change, for example, from a light greenish-yellow color to a deeper orangey-yellow color (regardless of the object’s actual color) when painting shadows.

Even though the complement of yellow is violet, a yellow/violet mixture turns too often to a dull gray. Further, by adding complements or blacks to render Giotto shadows (or even whites to render highlights), often creates dull colors. It may be the painter’s intention to render more lively shadows. By adding in more pure color a livelier shift in values can be achieved. So, for example, to make the yellow darker in the shadow area by applying an analogous yellow, orange, or even red in the mix will make a yellow’s dark shadows more pleasing.

Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro; c. 1395– February 18, 1455) was an Early Italian Renaissance painter described by Vasari in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects as having “a rare and perfect talent”.4  Vasari wrote of Fra Angelico:

“…But it is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.”

The series of frescoes that Fra Angelico painted for the Dominican friars, away from the constraints of wealthy clients and the limitations of panel painting, express his deep reverence for his God and his knowledge and love of humanity. The meditational frescoes in the cells of the convent have a quieting quality about them. They are humble works in simple colors. There is more mauvish-pink than there is red while the brilliant and expensive blue is almost totally lacking. In its place is dull green and the black and white of Dominican robes.5  The below fresco of Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, painted 1440-41 (150 Kb), in Cell 10 at the Convent of San Marco in Florence is an example of this period.  With reference to cangiante, note how Fra Angelico has shadowed the color of the priests robes with green.


The next piece, also by Fra Angelico, depicts the Saints and Martyrs.  A careful review of the work shows a beautiful example of color balance and color harmony all created with the cangiante technique.



The greatest practitioner of this technique was Michelangelo, and it is illustrated in many parts of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the image of the prophet Daniel at the top of this post, for instance, the use of cangiante can be clearly seen in the transition from green to yellow in the Prophet’s robes. After Michelangelo’s time, the technique found widespread acceptance and is now a standard painting technique.

Below in the Expulsion of Adam & Eve, we do see the use of black in shadows, but we also see a shift in color for shadows, and wonderful color balance.


The Cennini system began to fall out of favor as early as 1435 when Alberti wrote his treatise Della Pittura and recommended adding black to create dark and more natural shadows.4  By 1508, painters were experimenting with a variety of modeling styles, including as we discussed the past three blogs: sfumato (Leonardo da Vinci), chiaroscuro (including Caravaggio and Sebastiano) and unione (Raphael).  The Cennini system was no longer considered  modern, until Michelangelo revived the essential features of it.6

When taking a view of the Sistine Chapel in this way, as shown below, we can actually see how Michelangelo balanced the entire composition.  See how the colors lead the eye from one panel to the next and the overall use of color gives us a harmonious combination of form, color, and shadow. Magnificent!


God bless.





  1. 1Cennini, Cennino D’ Andrea,Libro dell ‘Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook) Translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1960.
  2. 2
  3. 3Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists. Penguin Classics, 1965.
  4. 4Alberti, Leon Battista, Della Pittura(On Painting) Translated by Cecil Grayson with Introduction and Notes by Martin Kemp. Penguin Books: Penquin Books Ltd., London. 2004 [First printed 1972]
  6. 5Hall, Marcia B., Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting, Cambridge University Press (1992), p. 92.


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