Portrait Painting – 3 Useful Renaissance Techniques

The Renaissance period is well known for the innovation of new techniques within painting. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Andrea Mantegna began using methods such as Sfumato, Chiaroscuro, Foreshortening and Underpainting to significantly develop their work. Described below is three different examples of these techniques, which are particularly useful and beneficial to oil portrait painting.


Sfumato is a technique of gradual blending, a method to subtly blur two tones, subsequently removing any harsh outlines. This method was thought to have originated in Leonardo da Vinciís work, with the Mona Lisa being a perfect example of Sfumato. The technique can give your work more depth, structure and form and is very advantageous to portrait painting. A good example of how to paint using the Sfumato method is to first apply a translucent dark colour, and while that coating is still wet to then apply an opaque light over the top. This way the opaque light will lighten the dark and simultaneously the darker colour will darken the light, from that you can create a blending effect with subtle changes in colour and tone.


The chiaroscuro technique is best described as being a strong contrast between light and dark and can be very effectively used to create form and volume in portraiture. Chiaroscuro is the opposite of Sfumato; the latter looks to remove any sharp or harsh outlines and blend to create depth, the former uses these outlines to create the form and that three-dimensional feel, so whilst they are two very different styles they are both used for the same purpose. Caravaggio is just one of a number of artists who used this technique during the renaissance period and is generally accredited with creating this contrasting method. His style of painting inspired others, who developed on the idea to create Tenebrism, which is a more pronounced version of chiaroscuro and uses a stronger more violent contrast between light and dark.


Underpainting is a great way to create the look of depth, which is very important in portrait painting. Different artists use different colours for underpainting; Leonardo da Vinci preferred to use sepia tones, others used grey, Italian renaissance artists used a green called Terre Verte. Although an unusual colour to work upon, the green underpaint enhances the warmth and solidity of skin tones.