April 10, 2021

High Renaissance painting techniques

During the rebirth of classicism, prominent artists like Leonardo da Vinci invented these techniques to make their paintings look more realistic after the transition from the previous era’s two-dimensional art.


Throughout history, artists tried different painting methods to create a faithful representation of their vision onto canvas. The word “sfumato” originates from Italian, meaning, in a literal sense, to cast a shadow or to darken, and fumo translates into “fume” or “smoke”. This effect is ideal for an artist wanting to construct a vague passing from one tone to another in a blurry and soft shading. Sfumato is a painting technique used by Renaissance artists to eliminate lines, borders, or hard edges to create a smooth transition between colours. This technique allows an artist to add more depth and portray a realistic image by fading out sharp edges, brush strokes and the feel of two-dimensional flatness.

Sfumato is a painting technique introduced by Leonardo da Vinci who used it to create soft edges through a gradual transition from one tone of colour to another “without lines and borders”, as he describes. Leonardo mastered the sfumato technique, and a perfect example of his work where he wanted to “vanish” the borders is the world-famous Mona Lisa. The use of the sfumato technique by da Vinci in his painting is visible after taking a look at the Mona Lisa’s face. Leonardo used sfumato in this painting as a technique to achieve a gradual transition of colours with the use of shadows where no sharp lines or distinct border are present.

Another masterpiece done by Leonardo using sfumato is Saint John the Baptist, which like in the Mona Lisa it gives viewers the feel as if they look at the painting’s object through the fog. Although the painting’s object is vivid, it blends in the background, showing no borders or lines but a gradual skin tone progression.


On the opposite side, there is another painting technique called chiaroscuro, and unlike in sfumato, the transition between colours is clear and strong. Artists using the chiaroscuro technique can achieve a vivid contrast between light and dark. Therefore, developing borders between black and white is the opposite of a blur toning in sfumato.

The opposites can go hand-in-hand with an artist like Leonardo da Vinci whose works of art reflect his genius. Sfumato and chiaroscuro, the two opposite painting techniques, are present in Leonardo’s painting “Virgin of the Rocks”, where he depicts the Virgin Mary, the Christ child, John the Baptist and Archangel Gabriel in the surroundings of a grotto. In a perfect balance of employing colour with the painting’s tone, he combined soft and borderless transitions with strong and rigid contours, merging sfumato and chiaroscuro into one masterpiece.

Chiaroscuro is derived from Latin and combines two words; clarus, which translates to clear or bright, and obscurus, meaning obscure or dark. Therefore, this painting technique works by using dark and bright colours to create highly contrasting figures and objects. The difference between sfumato and chiaroscuro is the meeting point of light and shadow. There is no border or lines in sfumato but a smooth and gradual progression from dark to light. On the other hand, chiaroscuro involves sharp contours of brighter figures on a dark, usually plainly black background, creating more depth and making the object of a painting stand out.

Some of the most famous artists who favoured the chiaroscuro were Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Goya, who used this technique to portray figures often in predominantly dark backgrounds. They mastered the use of back and white colours that do not blend in to create vagueness but instead give a clear and distinctive tone to a painting in which the viewer can easily indicate borders and sharp lines.


Another Renaissance painting mode is cangiante with an Italian origin of the word cangiare, which means “to change”. The change in this particular term refers to the development of contrast by mixing different colours rather than working primarily with black and white to render shadows as in chiaroscuro. Artists used cangiante, having a limited colour palette to achieve the desired effect.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling in The Vatican is a perfect example of Michelangelo’s use of cangiante technique in the prophet Daniel. He had done the transition from yellow to green without applying any other colour. The change from one colour to another indicates the mixing of two colours to render shadow without ever involving black, which would make the darkened area tainted with impurity. Artists like Michelangelo, who used cangiante wanted to achieve realism by mixing pure and natural colours when creating the contrast between light and dark.

Sfumato and chiaroscuro are similar in how those two techniques tone colours down to create shadow, whereas, in cangiante, an artist replaces one colour with another to highlight tone contrast. Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, also known as the Doni Madonna, portrays the Holy Family. He created this painting before undertaking the enormous project of creating the magnificent Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo’s technique in Doni Tondo is the model for the ceiling’s various fresco paintings depicting Biblical scenes and resembles the style and use of colours for the portrayed figures.


This painting technique is the union between sfumato and chiaroscuro in a perfect balance. Unione technique probably allows for creating the most realistic picture as it does not use too much blur like in sfumato and avoids hard lines and high contrasts of chiaroscuro. This painting mode takes the best out of two worlds and does not over-emphasize the fogginess of sfumato, neither the harsh edges of chiaroscuro, but remains in a harmony of values.

Saint Catherine by Raphael represents the use of unione technique where there are clear and distinctive borders, but at the same time are not too soft so that the viewer can appreciate the unity of sfumato and chiaroscuro in one picture. The edges of Saint Catherine’s figure are soft yet not blurry, giving the most realistic impression without extreme tone contrasts.

These painting techniques from the Renaissance became the milestones of art and culture for the future generation of artists who appreciate these inventions and use them to enhance their work. The Renaissance was a significant period in the European shift from art that was more two-dimensional and primarily focused on iconography to a new approach of looking at the human body. Sfumatochiaroscurocangiante and unione remain valuable painting techniques that paved the path for realism in the High Renaissance.