The Mystery of Sfumato

Much of today’s art places stress on bright colors and strong sharp lines. In a gallery the “high contrast” look will always stand out, leaping off the wall. However, there is something lost in this clarity – the sense of distance, the sense of fading mystery. Few painters in our times are aware of a technique called “Atmospheric Perspective” where objects in the distance are less distinct than objects close up. To create this effect, an artist will use colors toward the gray range, rather than the stronger more saturated colors. Painters in the past often used either a layering technique, or a stippling brush to apply the subdued colors. The technique is called sfumato. Leonardo used sfumato, but many other artists have used it even more extensively. For example, the image you see attached here is a painting by J.M.W. Turner, who made a whole career out of sfumato. Turner used light to express God’s spirit and so he left out solid objects and details. What do you think? Is this ancient technique useful? Would a bit more mystery in our art be a good thing?

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