Detail of the face of Mona Lisa showing the use of sfumato, particularly in the shading around the eyes.

Sfumato (Italian: [sfuˈmaːto], English: /) is a painting technique for softening the transition between colours, mimicking an area beyond what the human eye is focusing on, or the out-of-focus plane. Leonardo da Vinci was the most prominent practitioner of sfumato, based on his research in optics and human vision, and his experimentation with the camera obscura. He used it in many works, including the Virgin of the Rocks and in his famous painting of the Mona Lisa. He described sfumato as "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane".[1]

According to the theory of the art historian Marcia B. Hall,[2] which has gained considerable acceptance,[3] sfumato is one of four modes of painting colours available to Italian High Renaissance painters, along with cangiante, chiaroscuro and unione.[4]


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 an adjective (like "biondo sfumato" for pale blonde hair) or as a verb ("l'affare è sfumato" would mean the deal has gone up in smoke). The use of the term (unlike some others) dates back to the period.