1.2.41 Sfumato - or transition
In oil painting, sfumato is achieved using a dry brush. In pencil drawing, we try to emulate the effect.
In the quest for realism, sfumato is a powerful tool. Its roots are in classical painting. Leonardo Da-vince used the technique extensively. In fact the famous enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa is thought to be due to sfumato at the corner of her mouth. This area of shading seems neither to be a shadow or an edge, but something in between. The viewer is tantalizingly held on a precipice between drawing one of two conclusions. “It is a smile.” or “It is a shadow.”
See also the description for scumbling as this is closely related.
The corner of a person's mouth is an interesting area for a portrait artist. The slightest variation is detected by the viewer, and can have a profound effect on the person's expression. Additionally, the corner of the mouth is not so much where the lips end, but where they fade into cheek. This fade is complicated by the flexibility of tiny muscles in that area. Depending on how these muscles pull, the transition from dark to light in this area will vary. If you draw an outline for the lips, then in some cases, it sort of works for the upper and lower “edge” but joining those two edges at the corner of the mouth looks awful. This is where sfumato comes in. You need to suggest the edge but not draw it. You need to gradually but convincingly move from a dark tone to a lighter tone, and make due consideration for a dimple or slight asymmetry from one side of the mouth to the other. These tiny variations are extremely important for properly rendering a convincing realistic portrait. Above, I mentioned that an outline for the upper and lower lips “sort of works”. By that, I meant that you can sometimes get away with it not being too bothersome. If, however, you also use sfumato for the edge of the lips, the result will be more realistic. Lipstick will tend to complicate the position of sfumato, being that it may create a false 'edge' and possibly also allow the real 'edge' to be still mildly visible. Lipstick will look more like an edge and needs a quicker transition. Natural lips have a very much more subtle and wider transition. At no time on a person's face will you find a hard, definite edge. This is especially true for wrinkles and the boundary between the face and the background. Even if something is drawn onto the face - like a clown's makeup, then the natural texture of the skin will smear the edge.
Creases in clothes, and on the neck benefit from sfumato. Ignoring this can lead to an unconvincing portrait. As always, with skill, these guidelines could be ignored but the result would a very different type of art.
(C) Jeremy Lee 2010, all rights reserved.
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spOOk's art is owned by Jeremy. He has practiced drawing and painting for about 40 years, and might get good at it one day. spOOk's art is focused on graphite portraits.