Sfumato and Other Things

Born in 1452, Leonardo da Vinci grew up in Florence, a city dominated by the work of Early Italian Renaissance artists such as Verrocchio and Donatello.

The figurative frescoes of Masaccio portrayed realism and emotion.

Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, adorned with gleaming gold leaf, featured figures against detailed architectural backgrounds to produce complex compositions.

Piero della Francesca carried out a detailed study of perspective, and was the first painter to make a scientific study of light.

Such artists were to have a profound influence on Leonardo’s own observations and art.

Donatello’s David had a humanist influence which was to be seen in Leonardo’s later paintings, particularly ‘John the Baptist’.

Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden – a powerful expression of the human form, making strong use of light and shade to create a three-dimensional effect.

Light and shade were later developed in the works of Leonardo in a way that was to be influential in the course of art.

Leonardo was also greatly influenced by Netherlandish painting techniques which arrived in Florence with Hugo van der Goes Portinari Altarpiece (1476).

Qualities which define Leonardo’s work are as follows:

Pioneering techniques for the laying on of paint

Exploratory use of alternative substrates e.g. the cottonwood panelling to which the Mona Lisa owes its longevity

Detailed knowledge of anatomy, light, botany and geology

Interest in physiognomy and the ways in which humans register emotion in expressions and gestures

Innovative use of the human form in figurative compositions

The use of subtle gradation of tone

Use of natural hues.

All of these characteristics feature in Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Last Supper, and the Virgin on the Rocks.

Da Vinci’s work has had a deep and lasting influence on subsequent art.

Leonardo remained true to the Renaissance tradition whilst incorporating innovative techniques into the production of his art. Techniques which have routinely been adopted by artists since da Vinci’s pioneering first use.

The vanishing point, used to such great effect in da Vinci’s Last Supper, creates a sense of being in the picture – or placement, and is a way of adding drama. Additionally, perspective in a painting produces a feeling of three-dimensionality – giving depth to paintings.

The use of light and shade, or chiaroscuro, also gives art a three-dimensional feel and was used by both Caravaggio and Rembrandt to create drama in their art.

Sfumato, a ‘smoky’ quality of the shadows in a painting, adds realism by blurring or softening the edges of adjacent objects.

Sfumato equates to soft focus in photography and can be observed in the still-life paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin which provide one, two or maybe three perches for the eyes to rest on, with the remainder of each painting being out of focus.

The Mona Lisa is an outstanding example of da Vinci’s use of both chiaroscuro and sfumato.

Figure 1. clearly shows da Vinci’s use of sfumato around the bridge of the nose, the area surrounding the eyes, and under the chin.


Fig 1: Da Vinci, 1503. Mona Lisa – detail, sfumato

Figure 2. illustrates da Vinci’s use of chiaroscuro – note the contrast between the light area of skin on the hands and the dark fabric of the clothing.

Lisa_Detail 2

Fig 2: Da Vinci, 1503. Mona Lisa – detail, chiaroscuro

Ginevra_Lisa 2.jpgFig 3: Da Vinci, 1474 & 1503. Ginevra de’ Benci & Mona Lisa

Figure 3. compares two portraits separated by a 29 period, Da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci (1474) and Mona Lisa (1503).

The use of aerial perspective, chiaroscuro and sfumato can be seen in both paintings, if to differing degrees.

In terms of style, I feel that Ginevra de’ Benci has as much in keeping with paintings by artists both other earlier to and contemporary with da Vinci, for example Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition (1436), as it does with da Vinci’s later work – compare the palette used by da Vinci for Ginevra de’ Benci against the palette used for Mona Lisa and against van der Weyden’s Deposition, Mona Lisa stands out as exemplifying da Vinci’s favoured palette of natural hues.


Rogier van der Weyden, 1436. Deposition

Mona Lisa represents a refinement in da Vinci’s techniques, and whilst the refinement in technique, the change in the laying on of paint, might be subtle, the result is pronounced – with the refinement comes with realism.

Da Vinci’s influence can very clearly be seen in the work of Caravaggio, for example Sick Bacchus (1594), especially in terms of chiaroscuro.


Caravaggio, 1594. Sick Bacchus

Sfumato is most readily associated with da Vinci, perhaps because of the high esteem with which Mona Lisa is held. Whilst da Vinci can be credited with popularising the use of sfumato, he cannot be credited as being either the first or the only artist to use the technique.


Petrus Christus, 1446. Portrait of a Carthusian

When described as a smooth transition from light to dark without the use of lines or borders, arguably, we can observe the use of sfumato in Petrus Christus’ Portrait of a Carthusian (1446), noting, in a painting with a high degree of photo-realism, the gradual transition from shade to light occurring across the right side of the sitter’s face and especially between the right ear and right eye.

In terms of significance for my practice, my intention is to explore the use of chiaroscuro and sfumato by producing a series of images which study the texture of food.

Practically, chiaroscuro can be achieved photographically by arranging the subject so that it is bathed in pools of dappled light, light which, in photographic terminology, is ‘shaped’ and ‘hard’. I would suggest that the contrast needed for effective, ’dramatic’ chiaroscuro is somewhere between 6 to 8 stops.

Sfumato can be achieved in photographic images through the use of selective focusing and shallow depth of field.

I see this as an alternative to the ubiquitous, almost industry-standard lighting used in contemporary food photography. Arguably, contemporary food imaging exists exclusively to sell food, or promote food in some way. Images of food rarely seem to exist in their own right as something aesthetically pleasing.

Still-life, as a genre of painting, has thrived on making the mundane seem beautiful. Surely food photography can adopt the same approach?


Further Reading:

De Rynck, Patrick (2015). ‘How to Read a Painting: Decoding, Understanding and Enjoying the Old Masters’. London: Thames and Hudson Limited

Hockney, D. (2001). ‘Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters’. London, Thames & Hudson Limited

Leonardoda-vinci.org (2017). ‘The Biography of Leonardo da Vinci’. Leonardoda-vinci.org [online]. Available at: https://www.leonardoda-vinci.org/biography.html (accessed: Monday 31 July 2017)

Leonartodavinci.weebly.com (2017). ‘Da Vinci’s Impact on the Art World’. Leonartodavinci.weebly.com [online]. Available at: http://leonartodavinci.weebly.com/art-impact.html (accessed: Monday 17 July 2017)

Louvre.fr (2017). ‘Mona Lisa – Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, Wife of Francesco del Giocondo’. Louvre.fr [online]. Available at: http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/mona-lisa-portrait-lisa-gherardini-wife-francesco-del-giocondo (accessed: Monday 31 July 2017)

Monalisa.org (2017). ‘The Genius of Leonardo da Vinci: Perspective’. Monalisa.org [online]. Available at: http://monalisa.org/2013/12/15/genius-leonardo-da-vinci-perspective / (accessed: Monday 31 July 2017)

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