Leonardo's Smoke - jwardenphotography

By John Warden

This article was first published in the Spring 2015 Edition of Nature Alberta Magazine.

A polymath is simply a person who knows a lot, about a lot. This pretty accurately describes the Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519). His wide ranging interests and expertise included mathematics, science, engineering, aviation, anatomy. And he is thought by many, to be one of the greatest painters of all time. In 1503, da Vinci began painting the iconic Mona Lisa. Over the 4 years it took to complete the piece, he introduced a brush technique that has become known as Leonardo’s Smoke. Da Vinci himself explains:

It is as if a veil of smoke has been placed between the painting and the viewer, toning down the bright areas and lightening the dark ones, so as to produce a soft, imperceptible transition between the differing tones.

Leonardo’s Smoke is better known as sfumato, an Italian word that comes from sfumare, meaning “to tone down or to evaporate like smoke.” The Visual Arts Encyclopedia explains that with the sfumato technique, “colours or tones are blended by the artist in such a subtle manner that they appear to melt, one into another, without perceptible transitions, lines or edges.”

For da Vinci, sfumato was not a special effect. Rather, it was his attempt as an artist to portray more realistically what he saw as the infinitely subtle continuities of light and shadow that he observed in nature (Nagel, 1993).

As we have seen from da Vinci’s own definition, sfumato is about toning down and blending. Learning then, how tints, tones and shades communicate with us artistically is an important aspect of heightened awareness and how we look at and photograph, nature.

In trying to emulate colours found in nature, painters mix pigments together to create blends. Add white to another colour and you get a pastel; or more properly, a tint. The resulting combination is a lighter, softer, less intense version of the original. Less saturated, tints are often thought of as warm and inviting and warm colours elicit warm feelings. This is as important in photography as painting. Pastels take the edge off the particular color hue from which they originated and as a result, evoke a more thoughful mood. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa’s is one of the best painting examples of a thoughtful mood and Steve McCurry’s famous Afghan Girl, is a similar example from photography.

By adding gray to another colour however, painters create a tone. Tones retain a pastel look and feel, but are a greyed down or muddied version. Many people find tones pleasing to the eye and painters will often mix a little grey with every color on their pallet to improve the value and intensity of their pigment. Tones are more complex than tints, their message subtle and their feel, very sophisticated. The yellow tones in da vinci’s Mona Lisa are a study in subtle sophistication as are the grey tones of Ansel Adams’ renowned landscape photographs.

A shade is created by adding black to another colour. By varying the amount of black that’s added, the resulting shade can be anywhere from a barely shaded colour to extremely dark, nearly black. Darker than the original colour, shades evoke depth, power and mystery. The Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile is da Vinci’s very subtle example of shading. For an example from nature though, I turn to the naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. A keen observer of nature, Thoreau spoke of the forests around Walden Pond, commenting on “the shade that lurks amid the foliage of trees”.

If you want [to see] a different shade or tint of a particular color, you have only to look farther within [the foliage of] the tree or [deeper into] the woods.

Thoreau took his lessons, not from artists, but from nature herself, who was for him the best of all teachers:

Where else will [we] study color under greater advantages? What School of Design can vie with this?

Following Thoreau’s advice, I enrolled in Mother Nature’s school of design and early one September morning, found myself at Elk Island National Park, a magical classroom that is close to home. Fall is my favourite time of year and, that morning, the air was cool and fog lay heavy along the shoreline of Astotin Lake. Having walked out to The Point through tall, wet grass, I set up my tripod, attached my camera, connected the remote shutter release and prepared to learn. I was not disappointed. Oh, what a lesson that day. As described by da Vinci, the grey tones of fog and the few autumn colours were subtle blends, as if melting, one into another. Aspen trees on the far shore wore shrouds of mystery and slowly, the fog began to dissipate. In the silence, a wondrous, watercolour world was revealed in soft light and softer lines.

The soft skills of sfumato are not limited to portraits and landscapes. They also play an important role in the art of camouflage. Practiced in nature by both predators and prey, camouflage is one of the most common approaches to survival of the species and like sfumato it’s all about blending.

Late one afternoon near St. Albert as the evening mists began to crawl across the land, I saw a coyote crossing a farmer’s field. Hay bales were hazy squares in the background, but I’d caught the coyote out in the open. He paused to look at me. The highlights, tones and shading of his coat were a blend of the field and hay bales that surrounded him. He was perfectly coloured for his environment. Seeing him there in that moment, I wasn’t surprised to later learn that the word camouflage comes from the French camouflet, meaning ‘a whiff of smoke in the face.’

Another day, north of St. Albert and closer to Morinville, another coyote caught my eye. He sat down, waiting to see if I would leave, his coat blending into the tall grass. There was a soft, imperceptible transition between coyote and habitat, until it was no longer discernable where one stopped and the other began. We had eye contact that coyote and I, and a connection that was so strong that, had I blinked, he would have been gone, a whiff of smoke in the tall grass.

My young moose portrait though is even softer. The ears and eyes stand out. The rest of the moose though, blends into the bark of the tree behind him. Moose, tree and background all flow together, one moment moose, the next moment gone. To over sharpen or over saturate this photograph in order to achieve ‘tack sharp’ clarity would ruin the image. Camouflage is a whisper of smoke, not a forest fire.

Da Vinci’s study of light and shadow revealed soft edges and subtle transitions. Using fine shading and small, miniscule brush strokes, he spent years on his paintings, trying to recreate the natural blending that he observed in reality. We, on the other hand, have only the present moment. It’s a moment though of opportunities: to practice our long slow look and appreciate the soft side feelings of tints, tones and shades and to explore the aesthetics of tranquility and the mysterious. And in slowing down, we can take the time to watch the woods for a whiff of smoke.


Britannica Educational Publishing. (2012). Painters of the Renaissance. Britannica Educational Publishing.

Collins, Neil; Editor,. (2015). Sfumato: Definition & Characteristics of High Renaissance Oil Painting Technique. Retrieved from ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FINE ART: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/painting/sfumato.htm

Mente, B. D. (2006). Elements of Japanese Design. Tuttle Publishing.

Nagel, A. (1993). Leonardo and Sfumato. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 24 .

Thoreau, H. D. (1862). Autumnal Tints. Atlantic Monthly , pp. Volume 10, Issue 60.

Thoreau, H. D. (2009). Walden; Or Life In The Woods. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.

Wikipedia. (2015). Leonardo da Vinci. Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonardo_da_Vinci

Williams, S. (2008). What's the Difference Between a Hue, Tint, Shade and Tone ? Retrieved from Color Wheel Artist - Exploring Colorin Your Daily Life: http://www.color-wheel-artist.com/hue.html


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