The Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1519, is one of the most famous and mysterious paintings in the world. For centuries, art historians and scientists have studied the Mona Lisa and debated questions around the materials and techniques used by da Vinci to create this enigmatic portrait. One of the most intriguing mysteries surrounding the Mona Lisa is – what type of paint did Leonardo da Vinci use when painting her?
Understanding Historical Paint Materials
To understand the paint used on the Mona Lisa, it is important to have background knowledge about historical painting materials and techniques. In the Renaissance era when da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, most artists made their own paints by hand from raw pigments, binders like egg or oil, and other additives. The range of available pigments was limited compared to modern commercial paints, but Renaissance masters learned to blend and layer pigments to create a wide variety of hues and effects.
Some key paint materials available in da Vinci’s time included:
- Lead white – Made from lead carbonate and linseed/walnut oil, the most common white pigment.
- Azurite – A rich blue copper mineral pigment.
- Vermilion – A brilliant red mercury sulfide pigment.
- Ultramarine – A rare and expensive blue pigment made from lapis lazuli stone.
- Verdigris – A blue-green copper acetate pigment.
- Bone black/ivory black – Rich black pigments made by charring animal bones/ivory.
- Malachite – A green copper carbonate mineral pigment.
- Cinnabar – A toxic red mercury sulfide mineral used for vermilion.
- Lapis lazuli – A rare blue metamorphic rock used to produce ultramarine pigment.
Binding media like linseed oil and egg tempera were used to turn these powdered pigments into usable paint. Da Vinci primarily painted using oil paints, allowing him to build up many translucent layers for a deeper, more radiant color effect.
Analyzing the Mona Lisa’s Materials
Given the historically limited range of pigments, what materials did da Vinci use to paint the Mona Lisa and bring this portrait to life? Non-invasive techniques have allowed scientists to analyze the painting without damaging small samples. Some key findings include:
|Skin tones, background, light areas
|Background mountains, shadows
|Green tones in background, dress
|Vermilion, Lake pigments
|Lips, cheeks, hair
This analysis gives insight into da Vinci’s palette for the Mona Lisa. Lead white allowed him to create delicate skin tones and soft shadows. Earthy green malachite and blue azurite formed the landscape background. Vermilion and organic lake pigments like red madder brought warmth to the face. Finally, deep blacks from burnt bones gave intensity to the eyes and melting contrasts.
Recreating da Vinci’s Paints
Based on this material evidence, modern researchers have hand-ground paints following da Vinci’s methods to recreate his palette for the Mona Lisa. Using lead white oil paint as a base, they layered malachite, azurite, vermilion, and bone black pigments on poplar wood panels. When built up in multiple glazes, the colors and luminosity matched the tones of the Mona Lisa.
Scholars believe da Vinci also employed some of his special painting techniques, like sfumato and cangiante, to give the Mona Lisa her magic:
- Sfumato – A smoky technique where colors blend seamlessly through almost imperceptible transitions.
- Cangiante – Subtly shifting tones that make colors change based on lighting conditions.
By understanding the materials and methods da Vinci worked with, these recreations have unlocked some of the mysteries behind the mastery of the Mona Lisa. The combination of formal underlayers topped with thin, translucent glazes over years of meticulous work allowed da Vinci to create the luminous, smoky, shimmering effect that has captivated viewers for centuries.
Later Retouchings and Restorations
While the bulk of the Mona Lisa is da Vinci’s original work, the painting has undergone some changes over 500 years of existence:
- Varnish – Many layers of varnish have been added over time, yellowing the original colors.
- Cleaning – Incorrect cleanings stripped away upper varnish layers and original glazes.
- Cracking – The wood panel cracked over centuries, requiring restoration.
- Retouching – Color was added in cracks and losses, not always matching the original.
Conservators are now working to remove non-original varnish and overpaint that covers da Vinci’s brushwork. Improved microscopy can identify retouchings and separations so only non-original materials are removed. This will allow viewers to see the Mona Lisa as da Vinci intended when he first applied his carefully layered oil paints.
Technical study and hands-on material testing have given us incredible insight into da Vinci’s paints on the Mona Lisa. Though subtle variations emerge through ongoing research, it is clear that da Vinci worked with standard Renaissance pigments like lead white, azurite, vermilion and malachite mixed with linseed oil and layered meticulously to achieve the work’s famed atmosphere and mystery. By recreating da Vinci’s materials and techniques, today’s painters can follow in the footsteps of a master, coming as close as possible to painting like Leonardo.
While later interventions have altered the Mona Lisa over time, current conservation practices aim to respect da Vinci’s original materials and brushwork. There may always be an element of mystery and debate around the exact pigments used, but the palette da Vinci expertly mixed and applied resulted in one of history’s greatest artistic achievements – a glowing, hypnotic portrait that still entrances viewers after 500 years.
Through science and hands-on study, we uncover more each day about da Vinci’s genius. His masterful command of materials combined with years of passionate effort created the Mona Lisa – a shining landmark of our artistic heritage with invaluable lessons to teach us today.