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Sfumato: Science & Art

Sfumato is an Italian word derived from the word "Fumo". In English, Sfumato means blurred or no obvious boundaries. The term is often a reference to a painting technique popularized during the Italian High Renaissance period, Cinquecento. Up to this point, artists would copy nature line by line and detail by detail with no room for imagination or vagueness in the hope of portraying nature with the utmost level of accuracy. This exact copying of details made objects very accurate in presentations but rigid and statue-like with no movement or sense of livelihood. With all their significant skillsets and patience, these artists missed what Leonardo Da Vinci realized about the way our eyes work. When forms are not drawn quite perfect and the transition from one line to another is blurred, the objects appear more life-like and real than if all the details were sharply presented.

This article will explore Da Vinci's approach to Sfumato in one of the most famous paintings in history, Mona Lisa, and the art of Sfumato and our visual perceptions.

Sfumato & Mona Lisa

Da Vinci described Sfumato as "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane."

In several articles, we have discussed that our visual system and brain often manipulate the reality around us. We don't see objects as they are but rather as how we perceive them. This understanding of our vision and perceptions became one of the key characteristics of the High Renaissance period, which took the portrait of nature and the human faces to the new means.

When designing, painting, or creating anything man-made, the elements of imperfection and deviations from nature would actually create livelihood and a sense of movement that cannot be achieved with the faithful following of details. Because our eyes see things differently from what they seem and Da Vinci used this to his advantage to bring his objects to life in his paintings. Sfumato blurs the boundaries between forms and shapes of objects in a scene. It blends the colors and transitions of tones to leave a soft appearance of reality. Each part is added as a layer in coherence with the other layers and each layer only communicates a part of the puzzle. The viewer would decide what to see and how to connect the dots.

The famous painting of Mona Lisa by Da Vinci is the perfect example of Sfumato. We see the details of the story, like the wrinkles of her sleeves and the embroidery of her dress's neckline, are defined by the blurred transitions of colors, tones and lines without rigid outlines or boundaries. There is not one line shown with a clear border of its own, yet details of her face and dress and even her hair are all communicated with us. To give an elusive expression to her face, the corners of her mouth and her eyes are not precise as Leonardo deliberately left these areas vague. The shadows around these two important areas of her face, perfectly blended with the surroundings, give the painting depth and an expression that is not quite certain. If we look at her face, she changes before us with a smile that fades into sadness.

Sfumato & The Science of Manipulating Reality

Our previous articles, Here and Here, discussed the natural process of shaping memories and the role of Hippo and previously registered events when developing new memories. To summarize, we see objects when white light interacts with them. Our visual system interprets and manipulates the information received before passing on the modified information to the brain. So, what we see is our own perception and personal filters, developed by our past experiences.

Photo from Phaidon E.H. Gombrich- "The Story of Art"

Sfumato deceives our visual field's linear perspective to create depth and a sense of atmosphere that transforms an image from a 2-dimensional perspective to 3-dimensional. This depth allows the audience to imagine beyond the lines and boundaries of the image, as Davinci himself quoted, to step into an imaginary world beyond the point of focus.

The soft transitions between colors, forms and shapes prevent a single point of focus. This lack of focus manipulates how, what and when we see each part of the painting as we go back forth between our direct vision and side vision.

When we look at Mona Lisa, we see the degree of her smile changes as we change our visual perspective. When looking at her eyes or the background, she appears to be smiling as we see her lips at our peripheral (side) vision. But if we change our vision angle and look directly at her lips and gaze long enough, we see a more neutral or even sad expression. We no longer see a smile. Notice how our own facial expressions change as we notice her many moods and toggle between happy, neutral, sad and even fawning. The changes in our visual perspective influence what parts and features of a face we focus on and how we interpret them. We perceive the same information differently every time we change our perspective. The lack of a focal point or any hard edges in this painting encourages changes in our visual perspective and we perceive her many moods and expressions one layer at a time.

This article was curated and edited by Aidin Belganeh


  • Phaidon E.H. Gombrich- "The Story of Art"

  • Livingstone- Harvard- "Vision & Art"

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