The Subtle - John Warden

Driving past a farmer’s yard in Central Saanich, one morning, I caught a glimpse of three ghostly deer through the heavy morning mist. By the time I stopped and got my camera out, the mist had billowed up and obscured most of the meadow, leaving me with this very subtle shot of a young deer, looking back into the encroaching fog for its mother.

Leonardo da Vinci, might have been thinking of such a scene when he wrote in his Notes on Painting: ‘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’. Da Vinci turned his observations into an amazing painting technique that became known as sfumato, or ‘Leonardo’s smoke’ and he went on to spend four years perfecting this style of brush work on masterpiece, the Mona Lisa.

For da Vinci though, 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. One of the greatest painters in the history of the world, Da Vinci’s observations are also important for photographers. Not every scene that we view, or that we create as a photographic composition, needs to be expressed with hard lines and bright colours. Soft lines and blended tones are visually subtle, yet, as revealed by the Mona Lisa, powerfully beguiling, mysterious, thoughtful and sophisticated.

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