Detail of the San Giobbe Altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini. It was painted for the church of San Giobbe in Venice, now it is in the Gallerie dell’ Accademia in Venice. (Wikipedia public domain)

The Four Canonical Painting Modes and Techniques of the Renaissance

Arnaud HU, Translation by Lily Lin 

There are four significantly different modes of techniques in the Renaissance paintings which are Cangiante, Chiaroscuro, Sfumato and Unione. They have been widely spread by posterity. Many great masters applied them superbly to create brilliant and spectacular art treasures. For instance, when three Italian giants of the high Renaissance were alive, Michelangelo often used the technique of Cangiante in his painting, DaVinci tended to use the technique of Sfumato and Raphael could apply the technique of Unione perfectly.


In the early Renaissance although there are many kinds of painting modes in the Italian paintings, they were predominantly based on Fresque and Tempéra. At that time there were only a few kinds of pigments used, as skill and materials were limited, and artists were working with only a few pigments. Especially during the making of fresco, it was prohibited to use particularly paints which were susceptible to alkaline substance in order to prevent bad chemical reactions with the plaster, so the paints that could be used were few. Therefore artists adopted relatively simple methods to express color and value, such as the intrinsic color of the object mixed with black in order to represent shading. They could use their paints to express colored objects, but it was hard to show color changes more deeply. That’s the reason Cangiante emerged as the times required. The main purpose of this technique is to replace the highlights and shades by using analogous colors as long as the value and hue do not show too big a difference when compared to the actual color. We can see in Giotto’s works that he used this practice occasionally. Fra Angelico was an artist who began to apply this painting technique frequently.

Although Cangiante is a so-called kind of painting technique, this makeshift method results from a time when the available colors were severely limited in number and kind. With the coming of the high Renaissance there were many more kinds of pigments than before. This technique had been passed down. Michelangelo was the one who brought it to a great height of development. Michelangelo liked the color itself to express artistic conception; therefore from the artistic point of view he preferred to use pure colors to render shadows rather than mix the original hue with black. For instance, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel he used use pure and bright colors instead of dull colors in order to express the glory of heaven and brightness of God. By shifting to an entirely different hue, he enhanced the chroma and lightened the tone in order to create an unprecedented and brilliant color effect. Because of Michelangelo’s reputation and the impact of his work, Cangiante had a great influence on the later generation. As a result, this technique was still used in the late Renaissance, forming another artistic style and giving a somewhat exaggerated expression in terms of color. Thereafter we can often see Cangiante’s skill applied to the paintings of Mannerism and École de Fontainbleau.  

[*] The term comes from the Italian “cangiare” that means, “to change”.


Generally speaking, Chiaroscuro uses light and shade to express three-dimensional forms and space. This technique had been taught in the academy schools and continues to be taught today. In the early Baroque period Caravaggio composed his paintings with strong lighting on the main subject. He used a dark background and emphasized the contrast of light and shade in order to achieve a dramatic effect that was similar to stage lighting. Although Caravaggio is considered a leading representative of Chiaroscuro, in fact there were many painters who could use this technique perfectly. For example, we can see in the paintings of Giovanni Bellini that he could compose images effectively by using light and shadow to create the effect of three-dimensional space and the beauty of a sculptural figure on a flat plane. If, for example, we were to depict a man standing outdoors, we would realize from observation that the natural light comes from all directions. This is not the same as painting the effects of light and shade as if lit by a shaft of light from a single source. Although there may be many pictorial figures surrounded by nature, they appear to be under one light source. The purpose of this arrangement is that it is convenient way for artists to show three- dimensional forms but the result is totally different from reality.

As a result of the communication between artists in different areas, the variety of artistic modes became mature. Artists were influenced by all types of painting techniques from different countries. For example, the techniques of artists called the ‘Flemish Primatives’ such as Van Eyck, were spread to Italy where they developed into their own language after merging with the local technique. At this time painters were gradually developing their painting language more and more richly while they applied Chiaroscuro to their works perfectly.

[**]Chiaroscuro - from Italian, chiaro ‘clear, bright’ + from Latin, oscuro ‘dark, obscure’)


Chiaroscuro, Sfumato and Unione did not exist in isolation, they evolved through the same circumstance of study. Leonardo da Vinci is famous for using the technique of Sfumato masterfully, which is derived from the study of light and shade. For many centuries people thought about and investigated the kinds of techniques Leonardo da Vinci used to create such enigmatic and hazy beauty. Though Sfumato is well known, most of people’s understanding of this technique stays merely on it’s name “smoky”. 

The European synchrotron radiation facility (ESRF) and the research team of Louvre Museum began research on Leonardo da Vinci’s works in 2010 using the X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. They revealed Leonardo’s secret. In 2010 the summary of their study’s findings showed that although Leonardo applied different kinds of painting techniques in his works and glazed many colored layers, each layer was very thin.

We all know that da Vinci was a painter and on top of that, he was both an inventor and a scientist by profession. There is research showing that the oil paints da Vinci used were produced by a machine that he invented. So the particles of oil paint were much finer than the handmade paints made by other contemporary artists. In the pursuit of high quality paintings, this invention allowed da Vinci to spend most of his time and energy on painting. His way of manipulating his painting was to depict and glaze carefully over and over, so that the brushmarks are barely perceptible on the surface. 

The most significant part about Sfumato is that painters use very fine transparent pigments and a glazing medium which has the ability to flow smoothly and spread easily. In the middle or modeling layer the chroma, value and hue of whole picture is modified to be light intentionally. The basis of this method is the careful superimposition of glazes applied layer by layer, a method which was highly developed in the Flanders region. The color of each layer is so subtle, light and thin that it is hardly to be observed. Also, every coating layer had to be completely dry before applying the next one with a different transparent color. As it is applied changes are made, and the glazing is adjusted according to differences in the object’s structure and the changing of light and shadow. With the process of applying up to ten of layers of glaze the colors are slowly enhanced to a rich tone. After years of painstaking work, finally it had led to a mysterious and soft visual effect. Because of the manipulation of successive glazing, what people actually see is not the result of oil paints mixed on the palette, but a natural combination of whole colors under the optical effect of light going through layers of different glazing. 

In addition to the technique of superposing color layers, glazing was also used to make the outline blurred. These blurred edges effectively overcame a disadvantage of one point perspective. Humans have two eyes, so when we see things it is not as same as the images taken by the single lens of a camera. Generally the photos taken by cameras lack three dimensions, the reason is that the camera cannot imitate the parallax provided by the two eyes’ different positions on the head which give us a visual image with depth perception. Therefore, by blurring some parts of the contour to make the figures blend into their environment the whole picture becomes similar to what we observe with our eyes. 

It is worth mentioning that although painters spend most of their time rendering the subtle delicate color relations and value gradations, they always maintain the principle of refinement which is part of classical aesthetics. Also, there are no miscellaneous details depicted in a picture. This way of doing things is full of magnanimity and delicacy, and it represents the painters’ generosity and ability to maintain the classical spirit.


Raphael didn’t have the great achievements that Michelangelo had as a sculptor, nor did he have da Vinci's curiosity to explore every aspect of knowledge. He spent most of his time, energy and talent on painting. Because of his concentration and achievement in the field of painting, he was esteemed as a comprehensive painting master in the history of art by many masters of later generations. In spite of his extraordinary talent, Raphael took every opportunity to learn from other contemporary masters. Because of these characteristics of learning modestly and being kind with people, he was able to establish profound friendships with other artists when he was young and they often discussed painting techniques together. As a result, Raphael already knew well every major school of painting techniques. In addition, he didn’t waste his unusual talent, instead, he kept studying painstakingly and practicing over and over again. Finally he achieved mastery through a comprehensive study of painting techniques.

After understanding the two painting modes of Chiaroscuro and Sfumato, Rapheal discovered that although these methods could give a real sense of space and soft gradual transitions from light to dark, they caused the shades and the middle grey tones to become darker due to the over modeling of light and shade. In his artistic career the main subjects that Raphael depicted were images of the Gods and Saints. Only bright and vibrant colors are suitable for expressing sacred subject matter. For this reason, it was necessary to use bright colors instead of the gloomy colors that Michelangelo used. But he didn’t adopt the way of Cangiante (the use of analogous colors). Cangiante can cause the problem of fragmentation when one color is simply replaced by another. Instead, what he did was, according to ambient light, the reflection of light and variation of each hue’s value, and through the use of Sfmato he created gradual color transitions which looked clean and smooth. By following this method, the works are able to represent the value of the color, while at the same time they form the shapes with delicate transitions from light to shade. The outcome is colorful and dazzling. Raphael avoided a problem of Sfmato, which is the lack of color saturation. Also he found an effective way to unify forms and colors together harmoniously. That is where the Unione came from. 

Raphael’s teacher was Pietro Perugino who was an representational artist of the École ombrienne school and was famous for his excellence ability to use the technique of transparent glazing. Raphael was taught skills by his teacher, and before the age 20 he could completely grasp this school’s painting technique. In addition, after he learnt the technique of Sfumato from da Vinci, he combined these two techniques to develop them further. He reduced the layers of glazing and increased the thickness of each transparent glazing layer. He added thickness to the middle layers, which making them thicker than da Vinci’s. Raphael was accustomed to using intensive color on the middle coloring layer and paint with defined strokes in order to express of the power of sacred justice.  When we look at an original Raphael painting from the side and facing the light it is different from the printed image. Through his uneven and solid strokes we can feel the force and confidence clearly as he was painting. However, when we appreciate the work of art from the front, the brushstrokes of the underlayers have miraculously disappeared because of the optical affect of the glazing layer. Only each vivid figure is left, standing out from the painting and radiating an elegant and classical spirit.

People can always see those pure and transparent colors like red, yellow, blue and green etc. in Raphael’s paintings. And all of these colors are unified and harmonized by “the inner light” from the lower tint layer. Even the shaded part of a figure’s skin color is shown with enough value and subtle gradual changes. His paintings also manifests the elegance of classical, tranquil and balanced compositions. We can see many masters’ techniques from Raphael’s paintings. Some of the painting modes are opposed to each other. But Raphael’s works epitomized an overall technique which was able to unify them in one picture perfectly. The vibrant colors are used to represent the Divine, the sublime soft transitions display true compassion, the strong powerful brushstrokes express justice, and the harmonious unified tone reflects rationality. This is Raphael’s method, which is called Unione.

Following the evolution of the four painting techniques, we can witness the process of development of Renaissance painting from the immature experiences of the early period to the flourishing age. This process established the basis of the Western traditional painting firmly, and has lasted for hundreds of years.