Leonardo DaVinci assembled principles for making paintings. He derived these from personal observations on how vision works. He directed his observations to particular areas like flight and the motion of natural forces, like wind, water, and human interaction. I have reassembled his principles within a photo essay from a single afternoon in Boston. His ten fundamentals of painting, his design systems, his application of linear perspective, his color theory, his social theories for creating portraits and his invention of chiaroscuro and s’fumato are all represented here. I begin with his two great insights, how we are attracted to light against dark, chiaroscuro (example 1) and, how we perceive more motion, volume and mystery with smoky vs. hard edges, s’fumato ( example 2). Example one also relies upon other principles of DaVinci such as, the use of linear perspective and the notion of objects which are near vs. those that are far. examples one and two also employ linear perspective in the form of a foreshortened triangle (the sidewalk).
Leonardo used many of his principles in most of his paintings and even within many of his preliminary sketches. If I begin where Leonardo began then I must look into chaos and discover possibilities, new hypotheses. Example 2 offers ambiguity through the blurry focus. We guess where the edges are. We guess what is happening. Example 3 offers even more ambiguity but, couched within an inverted triangular design. The triangular design was a favorite unifying a painting for Da Vinci. He noticed that the triangle was the form that all receding parallel lines took when they directed themselves to a central vanishing point on a linear perspective grid. This use of the triangle and linear perspective is evident in a example 4. Another aspect of picture construction was the direction and character of shadows. Shadows diminished their intensity as they departed from their source. They also changed value, color, and inclination depending upon the surface they were landing upon. This is also evident in example 4.
Leonardo considered the principle of contrast as revealed in the relationships of near vs. far, dark vs. light, stillness vs. motion, and how color lives within a form or how shape occupies a location. In example 5 the foreground is greatly foreshortened to amplify the experience of near vs. far. The camera sits above the pavement to achieve this effect. The figures are backlit with the brilliant sunlight eroding some of the edges of forms. The figures like the crosswalk lines appear to be converging toward the light. Example 6 exaggerates the effect of the light’s ability to erode edges . It even affects the relationship of color and form.
Shape and its location were another subject for experimentation for Leonardo. Example 7 offers a feeling of the ambiguity of shape and location coupled to a principle of his color theory which was that the atmosphere, the distance tended to lose value contrast and the colors red and yellow while becoming a pale blue. I substituted the experience of blue in a landscape distance with a blue light within the South Boston Rail Station.
Contrast comes not only through light and dark but also through big and small which we associate with near and far (example 8) just as it can appear in old vs. new (example 9).
Da Vinci’s curiosity extended to nature studies, motion studies, studies of birds in flight, social studies of the motions of men at war or men in arguments. Example 9 presents a seagull as he begins his lift off. Da Vinci observed and drew the sequence of bird motions as they flew from take off to landing. His motion studies included horses as well as humans. Example 10 presents the ambiguous confusion of figures in motion within a place that suggests motion, the South Boston Rail station. The edges of the figures vibrate and echo as they move creating curious distortions but, still insinuating figures.
Leonardo’s advice on portraiture was to first understand social relationships, social interactions, the social identity of your subject. Example 11 Is a social study of roles and behaviors, dress and social roles and how they affect our movements, our appearance. Observe who is looking at whom and then self-observe your own narrative. What story have you concocted and what does it say about your social attitudes.
In my last example 12 I try inverting some of Da Vinci’s principles while sustaining others. I employ more ambiguity with dissolved edges, exaggerated s’fumato. I place the out-of-focus pale blue territory in the front as opposed to its prescribed location in the back. I still rely on the spacial organizing effect of linear perspective and use the reciprocal triangles to draw the beholder’s attention into the image. I design the piece in accordance with Da Vinci’s principle of flawed symmetry. And, I create a field of ambiguity, uncertainty into which you are invited to throw your narrative guesses.