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Amber Paulen


Leonardo da Vinci invented or discovered or was the first to employ the painting technique known as sfumato. The effect is as if viewing a painting behind a smoke screen, the lines are blurred, the boundaries gone, the subject slightly uncertain. One must look at the eyes and mouth of the Mona Lisa to understand: the corners are blurred and gone. Through sfumato, Leonardo da Vinci was able to achieve what until then had been absent in art: the effect of being alive.

The painter must leave the beholder something to guess. If the outlines are not quite so firmly drawn, if the form is left a little vague, as though disappearing into a shadow, the impression of dryness and stiffness will be avoided. — The Story of Art, E.H. Gombrich

“Dryness and stiffness,” like a corpse, the rigor mortis of death, the impermeability of the mind, closed, hard, metallic. And on the other side is life, the chaotic changefulness and uncertainty, the cycle of the seasons and the invisible flow of energy from one organism to the next. Everything around us, including ourselves, was born from a lucky chaos, the chance mixing of atoms and conditions, so it is written in our biological material: an instinctual solidarity with life.

Art is the only thing that can come close to life by imitation, but artists do so in a carefully calculated manner made to appear carefree. At one glance the Mona Lisa sarcastically smiles, at the next glance she grimaces. Her portrait is a mirror: I structure and define where there is naturally no structure or definition. We categorize, we focus on a point in sacrifice of the whole.

Sfumato then, is a lesson in looseness and agility. And I wonder how I can apply it better to my writing and to my life. There is quote that I have hanging besides my desk; that I have quoted once here already; that I was again thinking about before I ran into da Vinci’s sfumato.

You must leave your surroundings sketchy, unfinished, so that you are never contained, never dominated from the outside. — DH Lawrence

A sketchy surrounding is in the midst of contradictions, in vagueness, in a hopeless idealism and an idealistic lack of hope, in the chaos and the greyness and uncertainty and questioning and a never satisfied curiosity; it is sfumato.


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