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Unione: Renaissance Painting Mode

MadonnaMeadowDear Friends:

Florence was a famous city in the Renaissance.  As we have been discussing these past several months in the Once-A-Day Art Tips brought to you by, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Raphael Sanzio & Leonardo da Vinci are the most notable of the High Renaissance artists.

Characteristics of Renaissance Art are curiosity and objectivity, rediscovery of classical literature and art, and individualism.  Characteristics of Renaissance Art from 1300 to 1600 include the development of highly realistic linear perspective, studying light, shadow, and, famously in the case of Leonardo da Vinci, human anatomy, artistic method, oil paint and canvas.1.

In the last two newsletters we talked about two of the four painting and drawing modes of the Renaissance – Sfumato and Chiaroscuro.  This month we explore the use and meaning of the third mode, “Unione” pronounced oohn-yeonie. 

Unione, or the union of planes, avoids the softened edge to give a finished edge without over- emphasizing as one would do in chiaroscuro. The forcing of values (dark against light and light against dark) in a composition, helps to display form competently.  What has to be skillfully applied is a breadth of tone – a tonal scheme that is necessary if you wish to create beautiful tonal values and a fully enjoyable result.  This search for the right “tonal key” in a painting is part of using Unione effectively.


“Tonal key” describes overall tones within a picture.  You might want to think of this as a musical scale. The musical scale, or tonal key, creates a story – a play between lightness and darkness. If tone or value is simply a matter of how light or dark an area is, then the “key” is to find the right “tonal scale.” The right scale empowers the compositional relationships and that will determine the pictures mood and emotional impact.  The method of employing “Unione” in a painting creates a higher tonal key that where the image consists primarily of light tones, without dark excessive dark shadows that are seen in chiaroscuro.


The Unione technique used, as we see in Raphael’s “St. Catherine of Alexandria” and in Alba Madonna, c. 1510, reveal colors are brighter and harmoniously balanced, without violent contrasts. The shadows are soft (see the neck area and the hands) as in Sfumato, but the colors are more defined and prominent.


Following a continuous sequence from subtle to bold modes in Renaissance painting, Sfumato  would come first, followed by Unione, Cangiante and finally Chiaroscuro. 

With Unione a gradual, imperceptible transition is seen at the point where light and shadow come together. Unione is associated with Chiaroscuro, but as mentioned above does not use extreme sets of values. It is a technique of color employed without hard lines.

Unione is characterized by its sfumato quality. It seeks vibrant color what Sfumato attempts more soberly. Union eliminates strong tonal contrasts and employs color harmony while still maintaining vibrant color. Cangiante, which Michelangelo used extensively in the Sistine Chapel paintings, balances different color values by shifting color rather than tones. This  shift in color is achieved by using both analogous and complementary colors.

Raphael (1483 –1520), who, according to Marcia B. Hall, was central to the development of two of the four modes of color in Rome of the High Renaissance: Chiaroscuro and Unione.

The other two modes were developed by Leonardo da Vinci (Sfumato) and Michelangelo (Cangiante).  The dramatic, often night-lighting of chiaroscuro is very recognizable especially as adopted by Caravaggio and Rembrandt.

In response to Leonardo’s sfumato and its overall tonal unity, Raphael developed this technique.  Although, Raphael was greatly impressed by sfumato, he sought to achieve soft shadows and tonal unity without sacrificing bellezza di colore, or brilliant color (a highly valued property of paintings in early Renaissance Italy). What he accomplished was a “union” of sfumato and bellezza di colore.

Unione joins contours, outlines and edges of objects and space so that the transition is neither fuzzy or overly bold. It establishes edges in a painting by gradient shifts between color, soft blending around the edges, and an overall bright and unified effect. It is called unione because it strives to create a flowing unity.  In Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II, see how he worked it into his compositions.


In Marcia Hall’s book, the central chapter, entitled “The Modes of Coloring in the Cinquecento” argues that in the High Renaissance there evolved four systems of coloring, each demonstrated by a major master: sfumato (Leonardo), chiaroscuro (later Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo), unione (Raphael), and cangiantismo (Michelangelo).2  In the following diagram, note the continuous sequence of subtle to bold adjacent modes in Renaissance painting, Sfumato  would come first, followed by Unione, Cangiante and finally Chiaroscuro.  Double click on the diagram, when it opens, double click again and it will be easier to read.  Let me know if you have trouble with viewing this chart.VALUE SCALE W SPHERES

I hope this explanation on the play of values and colors will inspire you to test out some exciting compositions “alla Renaissance.”   Next month, we will discuss, CANGIANTE.  The term comes from the Italian “cangiare” that means “to change”.  It is a way of rendering shadows by changing the color.  This is achieved by adding analogous and complementary colors. 

God bless. OM


1. “What are the characteristics of renaissance art | ChaCha.” Insert Name of Site in Italics. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Feb. 2015 <>.

2.  Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting by Marcia Hall, Cambridge University Press, April 1994, ISBN: 9780521457330

Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting.. (n.d.) >The Free Library. (2014). Retrieved Feb 02 2015 from

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