Painting Styles: Sfumato and Chiaroscuro

Don't be kept in the dark by these two important terms

Mona Lisa by da Vinci
Musée du Louvre/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

There are two classic styles of painting which we associate with the Old Masters, sfumato and chiaroscuro, and they are as alike as cheese and chalk. But we still manage to confuse them, and which artists made use of which styles.

Sfumato and Leonardo da Vinci

Sfumato refers to the subtle gradation of tone which was used to obscure sharp edges and create a synergy between lights and shadows in a painting. As Ernst Gombrich, one of the twentieth-centuries most famous art historians, explains: " [t]his is Leonardo's famous invention … the blurred outline and mellowed colors that allow one form to merge with another and always leave something to our imagination."

Leonardo da Vinci used the technique of sfumato with great mastery; in his painting, the Mona Lisa, those enigmatic aspects of her smile have been achieved precisely by this method, and we are left to fill in the detail.

How, exactly, did Leonardo achieve the effect of sfumato? For the painting as a whole, he selected a range of unifying mid-tones, especially the blues, greens, and earth colors, which had similar levels of saturation. By avoiding the most luminous of colors for his brights, which could break the unity, the mid-tones thus created a subdued flavor to the picture. Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying "[w]hen you want to make a portrait, do it in dull weather, or as evening falls.".

Sfumato takes us one stage further though. Away from the focal point of the picture, the mid-tones blend into shadow, and color dissipates into monochromatic darks, much the same as you get on a photographic image with a tight focal range. Sfumato makes an ideal choice if your portrait sitter is embarrassed by wrinkles!

Chiaroscuro and Rembrandt

In comparison to Leonardo da Vinci, the paintings of Caravaggio, Correggio, and, of course, Rembrandt, have a heavy-handed approach to light and shadow. The focus of the painting is illuminated, as if in a spotlight, while the surrounding field is dark and somber – heavy, burnt browns melding to black. This is chiaroscuro, literally "light-dark", a technique which was used to great effect to create dramatic contrasts. Rembrandt was particularly adept at this technique.

The effect was created using successive glazes of transparent brown. Renaissance brown hues were generally made from clay pigments like sienna and umber. Raw sienna is a bit darker than a yellow ochre; burnt sienna is a reddish-brown hue. Umber is a clay that is naturally a dark yellowish brown; burnt umber is a dark brown. During the late Renaissance, some Renaissance artists tried other browns such as bitumen, which was tar-based, or burnt beechwood  (bistro), but these caused problems in Old Master paintings due to residue seeping through the canvas.

You can create the chiaroscuro effect using glazes of burnt umber (or umber if you want a warmer painting). Remember that if you need to touch up highlights near to the darkened shadow areas, you should warm your colors; add a little red to the mix to make up for the cooling effect of the surrounding darks. 

Updated by Lisa Marder.

Collins English Dictionary.
The Story of Art by EM Gombrich, first published in 1950.
Bright Earth by Philip Ball (page 123).