Light, color and vision
Color interactions: Simultaneous contrast
Peripheral vision
Luminance and equiluminance
Related pages: Michelangelo  ·  Chiaroscuro  ·  Lost shadows    « »
    da Vinci’ chiaroscuro


Even in an era of boundless scientific discovery and technological invention, and of sublime artistic and humanistic achievement, Leonardo da Vinci (14521519) stands as a supreme icon in Western consciousness the very embodiment of the universal Renaissance genius. Self portrait, c. 1512.

Leonardo da Vinci was the first artist to use value consistently across colors, achieving tonal unity in which a figure presents a single, swelling, homogeneously generated volume in contrast to the inevitably fragmented effects of color-modeling. Light, color and form are now related in a way that approximates to, and describes, their scientific and naturalistic behavior.

"Benois Madonna," Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1478          

In Leonardo’s painting above, a young Mary is playing with her son, and holding a four-petalled flower (signifying the cross). Mary is warm and charming, and the painting has a sense of freshness and spontaneity. Leonardo’s use of the oil painting technique, still new in Italy, enabled him to achieve depth and intensity of colouring and transparency in the effects of light and shade, as also apparent in the two painting below.


"Portrait of a Lady from the Court of Milan, called La Belle Ferronniere," Leonardo da Vinci, 1490-95

But Leonardo introduced a new feature: he painted a broader range of luminance than he really saw. Such skillful use of light and dark paints to define three-dimensional shape became known as chiaroscuro, a style of shading that dominates tone (brightness) more than color.

Leonardo paints Mary’s blue dress in shades varying in tone from black, to pale blue, to nearly white. He artificially expanded the range of luminance, creating a greater sense of depth. He achieved tonal unity by investing every colored object with a common range of value – but he does not vary the hue like Michelangelo does a few years later. Leonardo used midrange colors, all displaying the same range of contrasts. He did use some lighter and darker colors, but they are not extreme.

"Lady with an Ermine," Leonardo da Vinci, 1483-1490


About hs technique, he said: I would remind you O Painter! To dress your figures in the lightest colors you can, since, if you put them in dark colors, they will be in too slight relief and inconspicuous from a distance. And this is because the shadows of all objects are dark. And if you make a dress dark there is little variety between the lights and shadows, while in light colors there will be greater variety.

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