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The word sfumato
The word "sfumato" comes from the Italian language and is derived from "fumo" (smoke, fume). "Sfumato" translated into English means soft, vague or blurred. In Italian the word is often used as adjective (like "biondo sfumato" for pale blonde hair) or as verb ("l'affare è sfumato" would mean the deal has gone up in smoke).
The technique is a fine shading meant to produce a soft transition between colours and tones, in order to achieve a more believable image. It is most often used by making subtle gradations that do not include lines or borders, from areas of light to areas of dark. The technique was used not only to give an elusive and illusionistic rendering of the human face but also to create rich atmospheric effects. Leonardo da Vinci described the technique as blending colours, without the use of lines or borders "in the manner of smoke".
Leonardo da Vinci and other practitioners
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) became the most prominent practitioner of sfumato - his famous painting of the Mona Lisa exhibits the technique. Leonardo da Vinci described sfumato as "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane".
Apart from Leonardo, other prominent practitioners of sfumato included Correggio, Raphael and Giorgione. Students and followers of Leonardo (called Leonardeschi) also tried their hands at sfumato after Leonardo: artists such as Bernardino Luini and Funisi.
- Leonardo da Vinci: anatomical drawings from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle, exhibition catalog fully online as PDF from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which contains material on this technique (see index)
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