Mona Lisa Mornings

by John Warden

The article was first published in the Summer 2017 issue of BC Nature Magazine.

Walking along the seawall at Lochside Waterfront Park near Sidney by the Sea, the air was warm and thick. Looking out over the water, a fine, misty haze softened my view of the southern Gulf Islands. It’s a Mona Lisa morning, I said to myself, thinking of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.

Da Vinci began his painting of model Lisa del Giocondo in 1503 and over the four years that it took him to complete his masterpiece, he introduced the sfumato brush technique. Sfumato is an Italian word that comes from sfumare, meaning “to tone down or to evaporate like smoke.”

Leonardo himself wrote in his Notes On Painting that ‘light and shade should blend without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke’. In his essay ‘Leonardo and sfumato’ Alexander Nagel states that sfumato is not only a painting technique, but also the visual qualities produced by it; both the blending of tones or colours in gradations of imperceptible minuteness, and the effects of softness and delicacy this produces.

Neil Collins, editor of The Encyclopedia of Fine Arts explains further:

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.”

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.

I wonder what Leonardo would have thought of the high dynamic range (HDR) imaging that has become so popular in photography recently. In theory, toning down bright areas of a photograph and lightening the dark ones, is the goal of HDR. Often though, the results are very disappointing with over sharpened, over saturated images that bear no resemblance to reality. And that’s the thing. 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.

This isn’t to say that I don’t think that there’s a place in nature photography for bright colours and hard edges. Of course there is and those types of images tell a bold and dramatic story. Mona Lisa mornings though, give us a chance to explore the softer side of nature photography and those stories are written in poetry.

Let’s look at some of the words that are used to describe sfumato and then see how they apply to some of my photographs from around Vancouver Island.

Viewed from Billings Spit, near Sooke, a gauzy veil of morning mist wrapped the shoreline of East Sooke. To use sfumato words, the far shore was a soft tonal wash with occasional green highlights poking through the haze. Clouds and their ethereal reflections create the overall tone of the image which speaks to us in a calm and relaxing voice that suggests a poetry of contemplation and meditation. Where solitude is about the glory of being alone, this image in misty blues is more about a haunting loneliness.

I go to a photograph I took at French Beach for an example of toning down the bright areas and lightening the dark ones. My image bears no resemblance to what we might expect from a typical HDR photograph, yet it’s probably much closer to reality. It was early October and the tides were high. Walking along the rocky beach was awkward, but the light, the surf and the scene was amazing. It would have been easy to over sharpen and over saturate this image, but then, it would have been stark, rather than a soft and moody pastel.

An old wooden fishing boat anchored at Sooke Basin, is my example of tones that appear to melt, one into another’. This image speaks to me of the dream world of an ancient mariner and his albatross ‘waiting through the night, in fog, smoke-white’. The slightest increase in sharpening, clarity, contrast or shadows would change the story of this image.

All artists are storytellers and da Vinci’s smoky view of his renaissance world of blended tones reaches out from history to provide us with a fresh perspective on the subtle powers of soft. Had Leonardo been walking with me that morning along Lochside Waterfront Park, I think he would have been smiling. I think he would have liked it here on Vancouver Island, where nature’s reality is often viewed through a veil of mist on picture perfect Mona Lisa mornings.


Coleridge, S. T. (1834). The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Collins, Neil; Editor,. (2015). Sfumato: Definition & Characteristics of High Renaissance Oil Painting Technique. Retrieved from ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FINE ART:

Nagel, A. (1993). Leonardo and sfumato. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 24: Autumn 1993 , 7-20.

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