I just finished the audio book by Walter Isaacson about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. I would highly recommend it to all as it conveys a sense of not only the man, but also what a life devoted to creativity can be.

And what is that? Interestingly, it is the liberal spirit of experimentation and willingness to fail, or half complete works, that was the hallmark of Leonardo. For example, he only completed four portraits of women – one of which is considered by many to be the best Renaissance painting and emblematic of the time – the Mona Lisa. Many of his projects, and paintings, were left unfinished.

Another interesting and inspiring aspect of Leonardo was his willingness to invent technique and his success at doing so. Among those techniques was Sfumato – the sfumato-001technique of intentionally blurring lines and color to create an overall sense of realism. How? Because in life there are no ‘lines’, there is only the interplay between light and dark. The two often blend harmoniously.

Leonardo never wrote an overarching treatise – there is no opus book or books that depict his philosophy or conveys his style. Rather, he kept thousands of pages of notes, all that were apparently designed to inform himself and remind himself of certain aspects of whatever craft or art he was trying to master, including the craft of designing buildings and machines of all sorts, some of them machines of war.

He was, then, a blend of artist and scientist, and investigator into the known and unknown, who chronicled what he observed for sometimes mundane, sometimes profound reasons.

A bit more about sfumato. For me, sfumato not only revealed a style, but a perspective on life. In sum, life is not absolute light and dark, good and evil. It is, rather, the sfumato-002constant shades between. So sfumato as a technique is inherently humanizing. It emphasizes that nothing is perfect: there are no straight lines, there is no definitive light and dark, and there certainly is no perfected human form. By inference, there is no perfect human being.

What the technique of sfumato allows to happen is for the innate human inner light to shine through: a light that points to another kind of perfection. That is, that the light is imperceptible in a sense, and yet, perceived on some level as the human spirit. Often, but not always, that spirit is compassionate. Other times it is cruel. At yet other times, mysterious. The genius of Leonardo was his ability to convey that spirit and light in all its forms.

This does not at all mean we should stop attempting to be better human beings or to shape our own moral code.  Rather, it prompts us to have a broader, hopefully wiser perspective.  In other words,  the passion for truth and beauty does lead, it seems to me, to an understanding that no one has an absolute claim on it.  It is, rather, a sfumato. It is a blurring. It is in this blurring that we can find our common humanity and can abide peacefully in the light that pervades all of experience. This ‘great light’ is not so much a ‘spiritual’ light only for the religious – for a artist like da Vinci perceived it without necessarily always being overtly religious. It is the light of sfumato.sfumato-003

You can find a link to the amazon page for Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo here.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.