Leonardo Da Vinci - Masterpieces in Colour

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His investigations into the brain, including the highly innovative technique of injecting it with molten wax in order to determine its shape, were intended to further his understanding of human reasoning.

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The finely detailed drawings of these investigations, although undoubtedly exquisite, are executed as dispassionately as possible in black and white, but his studies of embryology are somewhat different. The foetus in the womb is given a rare touch of colour as if to emphasise his appreciation of the miracle of life.

The symbolism is developed by the ancient landscape in the background, which signifies a timeless universality. The fact that he was employed by, amongst others, Cesare Borgia and Giuliano de Medici suggests he must have had sufficient understanding and reputation in the field to be considered one of its principal practitioners. He sketched plans for a canal to bypass an unnavigable section of the river Arno and although that never came to fruition it seems he was involved in projects to drain malarial marshes and construct locks. Having paced out the length of the streets, Da Vinci then took bearings from a central tower before presumably working out the layout by geometry on a lost sheet of paper.

His drawings of armaments, however, seem to have been a different matter. Numerous finely detailed sketches exist, and Da Vinci got as far as creating a model in clay — but when the forces of the French King Charles VII invaded Milan, it was used as target practice by his troops and destroyed.


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Towards the end of his life he began to focus almost obsessively on drawings of apocalyptic deluges, in which there is nothing left but dust and water and debris. He knew that anything man creates will ultimately crumble to dust, just as The Last Supper had begun to do in his own lifetime, while the forces of nature will prevail. Of several colours, all equally white, that will look whitest which is against the darkest background.

And black will look intensest against the whitest background. And red will look most vivid against the yellowest background; and the same is the case with all colours when surrounded by their strongest contrasts. Every object devoid of colour in itself is more or less tinged by the colour [of the object] placed opposite. This may be seen by experience, inasmuch as any object which mirrors another assumes the colour of the object mirrored in it. And if the surface thus partially coloured is white the portion which has a red reflection will appear red, or any other colour, whether bright or dark.

Every opaque and colourless body assumes the hue of the colour reflected on it; as happens with a white wall. That side of an object in light and shade which is towards the light transmits the images of its details more distinctly and immediately to the eye than the side which is in shadow.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Life

The solar rays reflected on a square mirror will be thrown back to distant objects in a circular form. Since we see that the quality of colour is known [only] by means of light, it is to be supposed that where there is most light the true character of a colour in light will be best seen; and where there is most shadow the colour will be affected by the tone of that.

Hence, O Painter! An object represented in white and black will display stronger relief than in any other way; hence I would remind you O Painter! And the reason is that the shadows of all objects are dark. And if you make a dress dark there is little variety in the lights and shadows, while in light colours there are many grades.

Colours seen in shadow will display more or less of their natural brilliancy in proportion as they are in fainter or deeper shadow. But if these same colours are situated in a well-lighted place, they will appear brighter in proportion as the light is more brilliant. The variety of colours in shadow must be as great as that of the colours in the objects in that shadow. Colours seen in shadow will display less variety in proportion as the shadows in which they lie are deeper. And evidence of this is to be had by looking from an open space into the doorways of dark and shadowy churches, where the pictures which are painted in various colours all look of uniform darkness.

Hence at a considerable distance all the shadows of different colours will appear of the same darkness.

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Treat of the rainbow in the last book on Painting, but first write the book on colours produced by the mixture of other colours, so as to be able to prove by those painters' colours how the colours of the rainbow are produced. The colours of the rainbow are not produced by the sun, for they occur in many ways without the sunshine; as may be seen by holding a glass of water up to the eye; when, in the glass—where there are those minute bubbles always seen in coarse glass—each bubble, even though the sun does not fall on it, will produce on one side all the colours of the rainbow; as you may see by placing the glass between the day light and your eye in such a way as that it is close to the eye, while on one side the glass admits the [diffused] light of the atmosphere, and on the other side the shadow of the wall on one side of the window; either left or right, it matters not which.

And the rest shall be said in its place.

Early Years: 1452 to 1476

In the experiment just described, the eye would seem to have some share in the colours of the rainbow, since these bubbles in the glass do not display the colours except through the medium of the eye. But, if you place the glass full of water on the window sill, in such a position as that the outer side is exposed to the sun's rays, you will see the same colours produced in the spot of light thrown through the glass and upon the floor, in a dark place, below the window; and as the eye is not here concerned in it, we may evidently, and with certainty pronounce that the eye has no share in producing them.

Again, on the surface of antique glass found underground and on the roots of turnips kept for some time at the bottom of wells or other stagnant waters [we see] that each root displays colours similar to those of the real rainbow. They may also be seen when oil has been placed on the top of water and in the solar rays reflected from the surface of a diamond or beryl; again, through the angular facet of a beryl every dark object against a background of the atmosphere or any thing else equally pale-coloured is surrounded by these rainbow colours between the atmosphere and the dark body; and in many other circumstances which I will not mention, as these suffice for my purpose.


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Leonardo distinctly separates these branches of his subject, as may be seen in the beginning of No. The question as to the composition of the atmosphere, which is inseparable from a discussion on Aerial Perspective, forms a separate theory which is treated at considerable length. Indeed the author enters into it so fully that we cannot escape the conviction that he must have dwelt with particular pleasure on this part of his subject, and that he attached great importance to giving it a character of general applicability.

The variety of colour in objects cannot be discerned at a great distance, excepting in those parts which are directly lighted up by the solar rays. As to the colours of objects: at long distances no difference is perceptible in the parts in shadow. Which colour strikes most? An object at a distance is most conspicuous, when it is lightest, and the darkest is least visible. No opaque body can be devoid of light and shade, except it is in a mist, on ground covered with snow, or when snow is falling on the open country which has no light on it and is surrounded with darkness.

And this occurs [only] in spherical bodies, because in other bodies which have limbs and parts, those sides of limbs which face each other reflect on each other the accidental [hue and tone] of their surface. All colours at a distance are undistinguishable in shadow, because an object which is not in the highest light is incapable of transmitting its image to the eye through an atmosphere more luminous than itself; since the lesser brightness must be absorbed by the greater.

For instance: We, in a house, can see that all the colours on the surface of the walls are clearly and instantly visible when the windows of the house are open; but if we were to go out of the house and look in at the windows from a little distance to see the paintings on those walls, instead of the paintings we should see an uniform deep and colourless shadow. In order to put into practice this perspective of the variation and loss or diminution of the essential character of colours, observe at every hundred braccia some objects standing in the landscape, such as trees, houses, men and particular places.

Then in front of the first tree have a very steady plate of glass and keep your eye very steady, and then, on this plate of glass, draw a tree, tracing it over the form of that tree. Then move it on one side so far as that the real tree is close by the side of the tree you have drawn; then colour your drawing in such a way as that in colour and form the two may be alike, and that both, if you close one eye, seem to be painted on the glass and at the same distance.

Then, by the same method, represent a second tree, and a third, with a distance of a hundred braccia between each. And these will serve as a standard and guide whenever you work on your own pictures, wherever they may apply, and will enable you to give due distance in those works. There is another kind of perspective which I call Aerial Perspective, because by the atmosphere we are able to distinguish the variations in distance of different buildings, which appear placed on a single line; as, for instance, when we see several buildings beyond a wall, all of which, as they appear above the top of the wall, look of the same size, while you wish to represent them in a picture as more remote one than another and to give the effect of a somewhat dense atmosphere.

You know that in an atmosphere of equal density the remotest objects seen through it, as mountains, in consequence of the great quantity of atmosphere between your eye and them—appear blue and almost of the same hue as the atmosphere itself. Hence you must make the nearest building above the wall of its real colour, but the more distant ones make less defined and bluer.

Those you wish should look farthest away you must make proportionately bluer; thus, if one is to be five times as distant, make it five times bluer. And by this rule the buildings which above a [given] line appear of the same size, will plainly be distinguished as to which are the more remote and which larger than the others.

(PDF) The Colors of Leonardo's Shadows | Francesca Fiorani - tkonpubmaredcti.ml

The medium lying between the eye and the object seen, tinges that object with its colour, as the blueness of the atmosphere makes the distant mountains appear blue and red glass makes objects seen beyond it, look red. The light shed round them by the stars is obscured by the darkness of the night which lies between the eye and the radiant light of the stars. Take care that the perspective of colour does not disagree with the size of your objects, hat is to say: that the colours diminish from their natural [vividness] in proportion as the objects at various distances dimmish from their natural size.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Masterpiece - Documentary History [HD]

Because the atmosphere is dense near the earth, and the higher it is the rarer it becomes. When the sun is in the East if you look towards the West and a little way to the South and North, you will see that this dense atmosphere receives more light from the sun than the rarer; because the rays meet with greater resistance. And if the sky, as you see it, ends on a low plain, that lowest portion of the sky will be seen through a denser and whiter atmosphere, which will weaken its true colour as seen through that medium, and there the sky will look whiter than it is above you, where the line of sight travels through a smaller space of air charged with heavy vapour.

And if you turn to the East, the atmosphere will appear darker as you look lower down because the luminous rays pass less freely through the lower atmosphere. It is easy to perceive that the atmosphere which lies closest to the level ground is denser than the rest, and that where it is higher up, it is rarer and more transparent. The lower portions of large and lofty objects which are at a distance are not much seen, because you see them along a line which passes through a denser and thicker section of the atmosphere.

The summits of such heights are seen along a line which, though it starts from your eye in a dense atmosphere, still, as it ends at the top of those lofty objects, ceases in a much rarer atmosphere than exists at their base; for this reason the farther this line extends from your eye, from point to point the atmosphere becomes more and more rare.

I say that the blueness we see in the atmosphere is not intrinsic colour, but is caused by warm vapour evaporated in minute and insensible atoms on which the solar rays fall, rendering them luminous against the infinite darkness of the fiery sphere which lies beyond and includes it. Lee Hager on sfumato and focus in Mona Lisa. His study of shadow can be related to his works in both compositional arrangement and in sfumato techniques, which are both demonstrated in Mona Lisa.

One method of composition employed by Leonardo involved focus and blur. In the Mona Lisa Leonardo uses shadow in the lowest areas of the picture plane, at the edges, and background of the landscape to blur detail and draw attention to the detailed focus area of the face. Leonardo also uses shadow as a primary element in creating sfumato or soft focus, which creates the illusion of volume by allowing light to emerge from the darkness of shadow.

Her hands are areas of light that emerge form the blurred shadows of her body and her face emerges from darkly shadowed areas of hair and veiling.