Leonardo's Sfumato

Originally published 14 Aug 2011

In this exploration of Sfumato, I’m once again mining Marcia Hall’s comprehensive book Colour and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting. Colour is so central to my love of the early Renaissance and yet so difficult to find focused research on its meaning.

Sfumato is translated as…many different things in English including misty, toned down, dissolving and softened…but I think ‘smoky’ is the most convincing. Leonardo once wrote that ‘light and shade should blend without lines or borders in the manner of smoke’. (ref 1)

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1495–1498, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

Painters contemporary with Leonardo, including Michelangelo and Raphael, were responding to Alberti’s theory that it was necessary for light and shadow to look more natural in order for painting to progress. Alberti, in his 1435 treatise Della Pittura, recommended mixing colours with black to create realistic shadows. This was a change from using pure colour in shadows which achieved the brilliant, yet unnatural impact of the early Renaissance and Gothic periods (see Cennini and the SuperBrights). This theory of creating more realistic shadows coincided with the widespread adoption of perspective in the trend towards greater three dimensional realism in painting.

Leonardo’s sfumato approach stood out as a unique and distinctive response, no less than Michelangelo’s Cangiantismo and Raphael’s Unione (and later chiaroscuro). These approaches are now known as ‘colour modes’, but at the time they were known more as ‘models of perfection’. Poussin in 1647 used the term mode, based on Greek musical modes, which could be deployed to suit the requirements of an individual work. (ref 2)  

Sometimes, more than one colour mode could be deployed within one painting to suit the shifting moods within it. In any case, Leonardo’s mode, sfumato, created a mysterious and dreamlike mood. His approach was as soft and murky as Michelangelo’s was brilliant and clear.

As we know, Leonardo was fascinated with the application of scientific theory to his art. He had discovered in his experiments with optics that the pupil adapts to low light by dilating and that such dark-adapted eyes are able to see a greater variety of mid-tones. He therefore decided that the best time to paint was just before sunset for the most subtle and delicate lighting. (ref 3)  

He uses dark hues including black to achieve realistic shadows in keeping with Alberti’s treatise.  But he made sure the transitions between light and darks were so soft and graduated, that it’s often hard to clearly see exactly where objects meet shadow.  This creates an overall tonal unity which lacks the bright pure colours of  the Cennini school, but creates a softly lit atmosphere of equivalent emotional intensity.

detail from Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, about 1491 - 1508, The National Gallery, London

Looking at the beautifully restored and cleaned Virgin of the Rocks painting at the National Gallery, London, the figures blend softly into their environment in dusky light.  Hair dissolves into natural backgrounds, so that  faces emerge from their swampy habitat like softly florescent jellyfish. His most intense colours, the aquamarine and rose shades, shine luminously through the fine layers of brown, or dusk light.

Leonardo used many thin layers to achieve his soft transitions between shadow and light. See phsyorg .com for an article on Leonardo’s paint layers analysis which reveals as many as 20-40 thin layers on typical Leonardo surfaces. This painstaking technique is what contributed his reputation as a very slow painter.

Looking at Leonardo’s legacy on modern game and animation colour effects, it’s not long before I conclude the sfumato approach is a popular one for games, not least because the moodiness and the mystery is well suited to historical and post-apocalyptic environments.

Ubisoft‘s Assassin’s Creed (2007), which included Leonardo da Vinci as one of its characters in Renaissance Florence, embraces sfumato.  The twilights scenes are softly monochromatic with warm crimson highlights.  The surfaces are rich and detailed, yet the effect is misty, as extreme light and colour contrasts are avoided.

In the post apocalyptic genre, I came across some beautifully bleak sfumato visuals from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. published in 2007 by the Ukrainian developer GSC Game World. And after looking into it further on YouTube, it finally dawned on me that it was indeed a game based on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker.

I started to watch clip after clip of Tarkovsky on YouTube in a whole new light, having been moved by Tarkovsky’s beautiful cinematography many years ago as a student. I do wonder if he consciously set out to achieve sfumato light. In The Sacrifice he meditates on Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi.

Nostalghia (1983) is the film I remember as the most delicately beautiful in terms of colour. Looking at this scene from the film I’m struck by the mist, the dusk light, and the primordial swamp. Tarkovsky’s films often meditate on frozen moments that we can enter, if only in dreams. Tarkovsky, like Leonardo, presents visions which gradually acquire depth as our eyes and minds adjust to the quiet light.

“the time frame is not the dramatic instant, it is more an extended period of contemplation, yet it is not unbounded infinite time. The light will change, her expression will change, she will turn her attention away, alas, from us.” Marcia Hall writing on the Mona Lisa (ref 4)

References 1. The Mysterious Virgin: Light and Shade, The National Gallery London

2. Hall, Marcia B., Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting, Cambridge University Press (1992), p. 91.

3. Ibid., p. 119. 4. Ibid., p. 119.


Archived Comments

Jolene Realistic Drawing 26 May 2013 Good post. Enjoy painting.


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