As a young boy, I remember standing on my lawn as the sun set, staring at my arm. I must have looked weird, turning my arm over, looking at my elbow, smiling as I bent my wrist, changing the angle of my hand. The soft light gently reached across my forearm to the shadow that wrapped around the other side. The light that hit my hand was strongest on the first knuckle, dissipated in brightness as the next knuckle disappeared into shadow, until the final knuckle was lost in darkness. It was amazing to see these soft transitions, how you couldn’t tell where light was beginning, and where shadow was ending. As the sun slipped below the horizon, the light became, surprisingly, only more beautiful. The light was no longer golden, the shadows were not black, it was vague, soft masses of light and shade, warm and cool. And then in seconds, it was all gone, and it was just shadow. I hope nobody saw me standing there, looking at my hands in aesthetic ecstasy.
At the age of fifteen or so, I was taking Irish music lessons with a wonderful old Irish fiddler, Pete Kelly. We sat down to play the tune “In the Gloaming,” and as we worked our way to the end of the reel I asked him what the title meant. He responded “In the Gloaming? Goodness, sure you know what the gloaming is, don’t you? Why, it’s that short moment before dark, when the light is the most beautiful that you’ll ever find it. It only lasts seconds, and in Ireland we call that the gloaming. Well me throat’s gone dry, sure you’ve a powerful thirst upon yourself, precious child- let’s take us a dram of this here whiskey and …” Okay, maybe some of the details are a bit off at the end, but he did say the first lines. As he spoke, I was instantly transported into my memory of being on the front lawn, where I first admired that ephemeral light. It was a consoling thought to know that somewhere out there were more weirdos, standing on their front lawns at dusk and admiring the light on their hands.
A few years later, I was reading Da Vinci’s journals, and I came across a segment in which he writes (I’m paraphrasing, because I can’t find my Da Vinci book right now) about how beautiful the light is at dusk, and how one should draw at dusk in a courtyard with dark walls. I was not too surprised to read this, as his every figure is painted with this gloaming light. His paintings and drawings are never of figures in midday, glaring sun. Instead, there is this soft, mysterious dialogue between light and dark, where you don’t know where the one begins and the other ends. The light is his poetry, the form is his excuse to celebrate it.
Da Vinci then goes on to describe “sfumato.” When sitting outdoors at a fire, think of the white smoke rising above the flames. It is rich and concentrated at the bottom, but as you look at the smoke rising into the sky, it dissipates so gradually that you don’t know where the smoke ends and where the sky begins. Sfumato means smoke in Italian.
How does this apply to painting? Look at the gentle cascade of light as it flows across the face of a young woman- you can’t tell where the shadow begins, and where the light ends. Look at a cello on its side, and watch the light and shadow converse back and forth, the one disappearing into the other. Some think that, by sfumato, Leonardo was saying that his paintings were smoky, in that there was a milky glaze over the canvas which lessened the value range. I’ve stood before many of Leonardo’s canvases for long periods of time, and I’d have to say that an academic understanding of sfumato is altogether different from a “felt” understanding of sfumato. In speaking of sfumato, Leonardo meant the poetry that results from the dialogue between light and dark and soft and sharp, such as you will see in an old man’s soft eyelid, lost into the surrounding dark of the bony eye socket.
Leonardo Da Vinci, study of a woman (with damaged surface of paper), silverpoint
Margaret, day four
My teacher, Charles Cecil, would always use the idea of sfumato in his critiques. As he passed the easels of each student, he would comment “Too garish, please, are his cheekbones really that harsh, it looks like you’ve painted him as a depressed Russian novelist, you need more sfumato in the…” And to the next student “Now, I know that her shoulder blade does jut far out of the darkness of her back- but do you have to paint it so harshly? I mean, my goodness, it looks like you’ve painted her with some garish wings, it’s a wonder that she doesn’t fly away in scapular rhapsody. Why not design something more beautiful, why not enjoy the sfumato that is playing over her form? Try and undo the electric light mentality of our generation. Get rid of those harsh contour lines, see the gentle gradient of the…” and off Charles would go, to the delight of all in the room.
I rarely take a jab at any contemporary art, but I can’t resist saying that this is the tragedy in modern painting- many people are so preoccupied with things that they can’t identify the light flowing over the form. Many painters think that their job is to paint objects- that’s not correct. A painter paints the light that cascades over the objects. It is the dialogue between form and light that is so captivating and so meaningful, that is why we paint, that is poetry.