Sfumato: A Technique That Plays With Viewer’s Eyes

Sfumato is the art technique that distinguished paintings like Mona Lisa and Girl With a Pearl Earring from most artworks. But what does it mean? Read on to find out.


Every year, numerous visitors delve into the beauty of the Mona Lisa and Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. And everyone has just one question: Why are they special? Why does Mona Lisa stare at you with her eyes and follow you around the room? It seems that Mona Lisa looks really alive as if she really looks at us but has a mind of her own. She sometimes mocks us with her eyes and other times, we see sadness in her smile. This is all mysterious, but Leonardo certainly knew how to depict the complexity of human emotions in one painting. Having learned about Leonardo from his past biographer, Vasari, and his contemporary biography by Walter Isaacson, I realized he applied the mathematics of optics, light rays striking the retina and anatomy in such a way that it would produce magical illusions of changing visual perspectives. Leonardo once wrote, “to have a movement of a person’s limbs appropriate to that person’s mental movements.” It suggests that he even tried showing the exact emotions of his subject through varied poses and movements, one of the examples is The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne. But one of the foremost things that made it possible for him to implement all these things with a perfect subject is Sfumato. Earlier, when I wrote an article on Leonardo’s paintings, I knew that there would be a follow-up article to this. And so today, we are learning about this technique, which our legendary artist created and changed the galleries of art forever.

Historical Background of Sfumato.

As the Italian masters imitated Masaccio’s techniques in the Quattrocento period, one of their common problems was that their figures looked hard and harsh, almost wooden. There was neglect of the human touch. But the strange thing was that it was not a lack of patience or knowledge that was responsible for the absence of the human touch. In the history of art, no one could be more patient in his imitation of nature than Jan Van Eyck, or no one could know more about appropriate perspective than Mantegna. Hence, we can imagine that despite all the grandeur and impressiveness of the representation of their art, every single artist’s figure looked like a statue rather than an actual living being. One of the reasons behind this could be that when an artist draws a figure line by line and detail by detail, he is just engaged in achieving utmost perfection rather than letting the figures breathe or move. For instance, when you look at Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, you will see that he tried to emphasize the pictures of the waving hair of Venus but with a rigid outline. You can clearly see the sharp contours. This appearance of stiffness and dryness will be avoided if the outlines aren’t quite as firmly drawn or if the form is left vague as if disappearing into shadow. That is what the Italian legendary artist and genius, Leonardo taught the world of art. This is what we call sfumato. Let me explain it more to you in the next section.

Venus Botticelli Detailed

What is Sfumato?

The term Sfumato derives from the Italian word for smoke or dissipation and gradual vanishing of smoke into the air. Leonardo explained this through his note,

“Your shadows and lights should be blended without lines or borders in the manner of smoke losing itself in the air.”

If you look at the smile of the Mona Lisa (which I will explain below), Leonardo created its edges to be blurred and smoke-veiled, which allowed a role for our own imagination. Since there are no sharp lines or enigmatic glances, the smile of the Mona Lisa flickers mysteriously. But this is not it.

Observation and mathematics led Leonardo to the radical insight that there is no such thing as a precisely visible outline or border to an object in nature, so he relied on shadows to define the shape of most objects instead of contour lines. It wasn’t just our perception of objects that blurred their borders. Despite what we see with our eyes, nature itself does not have precise lines. The artist was clear that nothing in nature has precise lines boundaries, or borders. He wrote,

“Lines are not part of any quantity of an object’s surface, nor are they part of the air which surrounds the surface.”

According to Leonardo, the lines and points are just mathematical constructs, and they do not have a physical presence, which we can see. He explains,

“The line has in itself neither matter nor substance and may rather be called an imaginary idea than a real object, and this being its nature, it occupies no space.”

After Leonardo gave this theory, he suggested to artists,

“Do not edge contours with a definite outline, because the contours are lines, and they are invisible, not only from a distance but also close at hand. If the line and also the mathematical point are invisible, the outlines of things, also being lines, are invisible, even they are near at hand.”

Hence to represent an object, the artist must rely on light and shadows for volume. 

This absence of boundaries or lines in any object and use of hazy and smoky outlines to represent volume is sfumato. Now, it is not merely a technique for modeling reality, but it is an analogy for the blurry distinction between what is known and what is mysterious. Hence, to fill the gaps of reality and fantasy, experience and mystery, visibility and non-visibility, and the relation of nature with the object, sfumato is preferred. 

Sfumato Definition

Sfumato is a technique to display the volume of an object through light and shadows, rather than using sharp contour lines or boundaries.

Now, that you have understood the technique, let us move to the finest paintings, which have purposefully used it to differ their art from the rest of the world.

Prominent Sfumato Paintings to Learn From.

1. Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

TitleMona Lisa
Other nameNA
ArtistLeonardo da Vinci
CreatedBegun 1503 and continued till 1519
PeriodHigh Renaissance
MediumOil on wood
Dimensions30.025 x 20.4 in
MuseumLouvre, Paris

Leonardo’s return to Florence in 1503 after serving Cesare Borgia brought him a commission to paint the wife of a Florentine cloth merchant. A painting that became nothing less than an achievement for any painter to come near for centuries, Mona Lisa is a frame that comprises Da Vinci’s years of work, from 1503 to 1517 and existed in his studio till his death in 1519. So it makes sense to say that the Mona Lisa was an end-of-career painting of Da Vinci that intersected his learning of psychology, nature, and the human body. As Kenneth Clark wrote,

“His insatiable curiosity, his restless leaps from one subject to another, have been harmonized in a single work,”

“The science, the pictorial skill, the obsession with nature, the psychological insight are there, and so perfectly balanced that at first we are hardly aware of them.”

Coming to a fast review of the masterpiece, Leonardo painted in his early career a similar portrait, Ginevra de’ Benci- an artwork that shares too much resemblance in terms of the subject, the background, and the commission. However, the Mona Lisa showcases the multi-layered geniuses of the artist. The poplar panel with an uncommonly thick primer coat of lead white allowed it to reflect light through the fine layers and translucent glaze, a technique that allowed Da Vinci to create depth, luminosity, and volume. Further, the contours of cheeks and lips have smooth transitions of tone and seem veiled by the glaze layers, as a result, which varies with the light and angle of the viewer’s sight exhibiting the clearest sfumato use.

Sfumato of Mona Lisa Leonardo da Vinci

2. Girl With a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer.

TitleGirl With a Pearl Earring
Other nameNA
ArtistJohannes Vermeer
Createdc. 1665-1666
PeriodDutch Baroque Period
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions44.5 x 39 cm (17.05 x 15 in)
MuseumRoyal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague

As more and more evidence is gathered from Vermeer’s paintings, it is confirmed that the artist carefully implemented his compositions. As a classicist painter, he purified and idealized the beauty of the visual world, creating images for timeless truths for human needs and emotions. One of the examples of Vermeer’s purest classicism is revealed through the timeless elegance of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. 

Recent analysis suggests that Vermeer went up to his attic when he started painting to mix his pigments on the stone table with linseed oil, as he did for other paintings. Vermeer probably used one palette for the lighter colors and another for the darker colors listed in the inventory. He used a variety of brushes, including larger square-tipped brushes and smaller round-tipped brushes. The brush hairs from the Girl with a Pearl Earring’s half-tones and the gray-brown scumble that renders the reflection of Delft in the water became embedded in the paint. Besides, he also used sfumato to create a softer touch to the subject’s features and contours.

Having parted her lips and gazing at the viewer, the girl radiates purity, capturing the attention of all who see her. The surface of her large, teardrop-shaped pearl earring is as smooth and soft as her soft, smooth skin. She belongs to no certain time or place, like a vision emerging from the darkness. The girl’s crystalline blue turban is topped by a striking yellow fabric draped behind her shoulder, creating an atmosphere of mystery.

Girl With a Pearl Earring Sfumato Paintings

3. Portrait of Bindo Altoviti by Raphael.

TitlePortrait of Bindo Altoviti
Other nameNA
PeriodHigh Renaissance
MediumOil on panel
Dimensions59.7 x 43.8 cm (23 1/2 x 17 1/4 in)
MuseumNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

At the time when Raphael painted this portrait, Bindo Altoviti was a close ally of the Medici family. However, from the fall of the Florentine Republic in 1530 onwards, he became an adversary of the family, supporting financially various coups against Alessandro and Cosimo de Medici. Bindo was so friendly with every artist that he was included in many of their works.

Raphael was a fan of the sfumato technique, so in contrast with other Renaissance painters, he used clearer and brighter flashes of color in his paintings. Raphael painted the young man with a three-quarter view in a softly lit atmosphere. He gave special attention to the lighting effects coming from the left and observed the highlighted areas of the man’s face. The soft, carefully blended lighting effects through the sfumato of Raphael’s paintings convey an air of calm, tranquility, and quiet mystery.

Sfumato Painting Portrait of Bindo Altoviti by Raphael

4. Nativity (The Holy Night) by Correggio.

TitleNativity (The Holy Night)
Other nameNA
PeriodItalian Renaissance
DimensionsNot known
MuseumDresden-based Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister

The Nativity, called La Notte or The Holy Night, is now within the Dresden collection. It seemed to have been commissioned in 1522, as the written agreement, which still exists, suggests. Alberto Pratonera of Reggio, who commissioned this work, wanted an artwork from Correggio, representing the Birth of Christ with other figures,

“the whole to be done excellently well.”

It coincided with the same period when the S. Giovanni frescoes were still in progress, but it was not finished until 1530. The original sketch for the composition is in the British Museum, and a comparison with the finished painting has many differences.

Correggio was an artist who had the skills to portray the diffusion of light, even with the shadows, in an excellent manner. In this painting, the whole light takes its source from the little body of Christ as if he beams in the midst like a star. There is a strong contrast of light and shadow, which is brought into other portions of the picture. The mother holds Jesus in her arms and looks down with pride at his tiny yet powerful form. The light first falls on the Madonna and then on the shepherds (men and peasant girls), who gaze at him with open and wondering eyes. It then reaches Saint Joseph in the background, tethering the ass, and then reaches the moving limbs and glad forms of a group of angels in the clouds, serving one another. Correggio used soft touches of light and shadows alongside the figure boundaries to expand the visual pleasure and realism of the painting. In addition to this, there is an aerial motion in the artwork through the angels who look down with smiles to the happy scene of adoration, where the radiancy of light is from the Christ Child himself.

Nativity (The Holy Night) by Correggio Sfumato

5. The Virgin Adoring the Child with Saint Joseph by Fra Bartolommeo.

TitleThe Virgin Adoring the Child with Saint Joseph
Other nameNA
ArtistFra Bartolommeo
CreatedBefore 1511
PeriodItalian Renaissance
MediumOil on wood
Dimensions137.8 × 104.8 cm
MuseumNational Gallery, London

The Virgin Adoring the Child with Saint Joseph is a painting intended for private devotion where the artist showcased the surroundings of Christ’s birth. Fra Bartolommeo depicts the Madonna in a simple robe and veil, kneeling on the ground before the infant Christ as she crosses her arms over her chest in reverence. The baby Jesus lies naked with a single cloth wrapped on just a simple bolster, whereas the barefoot Saint Joseph watches over him.

Having escaped Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem, St. John the Baptist fled to the wilderness to live as a hermit protected by the Archangel Uriel, which is why he appears walking away from the city gate. Among the most popular images in Florence seem to be those of the Virgin and Child with Saint John, who was Florence’s patron saint. In Giuliano Bugiardini’s Rape of Dinah (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), an artist and his assistants paint a fresco above the city gate.

The painting, The Virgin Adoring the Child with Saint Joseph, was commissioned by Alamanno Salviati for his son Averado in 1509 as the account book of the San Marco convent suggested. Despite the fact that payment went to both Fra Bartolommeo and Mariotto Albertinelli (1474–1515) because they were working together at the time, the technique, handling, and coloring suggest that Fra Bartolommeo himself painted the picture between 1508 and 1510.

The veiled, chaste gentleness of mood and the softened forms of the Bartolommeo are due to his subtle chiaroscuro and sfumato techniques, which is an impact from Leonardo’s paintings. According to a drawing in Munich, Saint Joseph’s facial features are those of Fra Bartolommeo himself, as the monumental form reflects Michelangelo’s influence.

The Virgin Adoring the Child with Saint Joseph by Fra Bartolommeo

6. Portrait of a Young Man by Giorgione.

TitlePortrait of a Young Man
Other nameNA
CreatedNot known (First half of the sixteenth century)
MediumOil on panel
Dimensions59.2 x 47 cm
MuseumStaatliche Museen, Berlin

There have never been any plausible explanations for the letters V V painted in trompe l’oeil on the parapet. It is likely that they are the initials of the man pictured, who commissioned it or owned it for the first time. Giustiniani of Padua (thus its title) acquired the painting in 1884 and sold it to J. J. Richter, who attributed the painting to Giorgione and sold it to the Berline Museum in 1891. Despite the absence of any historical documentation, critics have unanimously attributed the picture to Giorgione. Fiocco believes it may have been painted later because of its full maturity characteristics, but according to GM Richter, it was done probably in about 1504. It is the first modern portrait showing a man with a slightly melancholy expression rather than a devout patron taken directly from an icon. There is only a slight distance between it and the Madonna of Castelfranco, according to Morassi. It is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating portraits of the early sixteenth century, with the brush lightly used but with thick strokes in constant vibration, almost breaking up in contact with the light: the prototype for Venetian painters of the period.

The sitter is depicted as a half-figure, appearing against a dark background. His right hand sits on the stone balustrade, and the upper body rotates almost imperceptibly away from the frontal position with a three-quarter view face. As he gazes at the viewer, he appears to be focused on him. Wearing a pale violet, quilted garment, the cool gaze confronts the viewer from the corners of the sitter’s eyes.

Portrait of Young Man Giorgione

Final Words.

By now, you might have understood the Sfumato technique, but if you still have any questions, you can always ask in the comments.


1. The Story of Art by E.H Gombrich.

2. Fra Bartolommeo by Leader Scott.

3. Leonarda da Vinci By Walter Issacton.

4. The complete paintings of Giorgione by Pietro Zampetti.

5. The Masterpieces of Correggio From the Library of Frank Simpson.

6. Vermeer by Johannes Vermeer.

7. National Gallery of Art.

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