If you’ve ever driven around Los Angeles, you’ve
experienced the phenomenon of sfumato. Through the smog, everything
takes on a misty, ethereal quality—Golden Arches meld imperceptibly
with the San Gabriel Mountains, palm fronds dissipate
into the gray of the Disneyland Matterhorn.
It’s all very delightful until you remember that deadly PM-
10s are responsible for the effect.
Fortunately, the sfumato technique used in paintings won’t
give you lung cancer. The term, which comes from the Italian
fumo (‘smoke’), describes the process of blending colors so carefully
that they merge without a visible outline, resulting in a
“smoky,” soft-focus look.
Leonardo da Vinci was a pioneer of the sfumato style, which
was in stark contrast to the earlier Italian tradition of sharp outlines.
You can see sfumato at work in the Mona Lisa (c. 1503), especially
where the subject’s right cheek blends imperceptibly with her