Welcome to Masterclass

Learning tools for artists

Sfumato

Sfumato is the practice of losing edges by fusing one colour into another to achieve a subtle transition between light and shade, a process credited to the artist Leonardo DaVinci and historically used to create soft flesh tones. This video explores three ways to create lost edges, or sfumato. First, by adding a mixture of 1-part stand oil to 2-part sansodor to your paint, you will create a glaze that extends drying time, softens edges and allows you to work into the paint for longer. The second way to do this is with Liquin; mixing in an amount of Liquin to your paint will provide a glaze that remains open to manipulation but will still dry in under 24 hours. Finally, you can create lost edges with opaque paint that is close in value. For example, a tonal flesh palette can be achieved with Yellow Ochre Pale, Venetian Red, Raw Umber, Ultramarine and Titanium White. When mixing this palette, the colours of a similar value placed near each other create sfumato because the transitions are so subtle.

Video Transcript
0:09    Hi there. Today I'd like to explain sfumato. It's a term which is thought to have originated with Leonardo da Vinci. It describes the fusing of one colour into another to achieve the subtle transitions of light and shade, that create, in particular, the rounded forms of human figures. In Leonardo's time, the melting of figures into the background was achieved by the layering and fusing of transparent colours over a modelled underpainting, to give the appearance of disappearing rounded edges.

0:43    I'm making a mixture of one part Stand Oil to two of Sansodor to give me a glazing vehicle with an extended drying time. I’ll thin this colour with the mix. The longer drying time means I can remove the glaze if I want to change its density. I can also continue to manipulate the glaze some time after applying, or to introduce other colours into the same layer. If time is critical, Liquin original by Winsor & Newton is a great alternative.

1:42    This glaze will not set-up too quickly and drag the brush, so gives ample time for manipulation, but will dry in less than 24 hours. A more modern way of creating sfumato is to work with opaque colour and do the mixing on a palette. Here are some mixtures, derived from a restricted palette for flesh, using Yellow Ochre Pale, Venetian Red, Raw Umber, Ultramarine and Titanium White.

2:18    Here, where the form transitions into the background, two mixtures of the same tonal value but different hue sit side by side. We could use the term ‘lost edges’ to describe the effect this has. By fusing the edge with the space around it, we can turn the edge into the background and place greater emphasis on the centre of the form, to bring it forward.

This is sfumato. I hope you’ve found this useful!