The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci/VI

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VI. Perspective of Colour and Aerial Perspective.[edit]

_Leonardo distinctly separates these branches of his subject, as may be seen in the beginning of No._ 295. _Attempts have been made to cast doubts on the results which Leonardo arrived at by experiment on the perspective of colour, but not with justice, as may be seen from the original text of section_ 294.

_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._

General rules (289--291).

289.

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.

290.

As to the colours of objects: at long distances no difference is perceptible in the parts in shadow.

291.

OF THE VISIBILITY OF COLOURS.

Which colour strikes most? An object at a distance is most conspicuous, when it is lightest, and the darkest is least visible.

An exceptional case.

292.

Of the edges [outlines] of shadows. Some have misty and ill defined edges, others distinct ones.

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.

An experiment.

293.

ALL COLOURS ARE AT A DISTANCE UNDISTINGUISHABLE AND UNDISCERNIBLE.

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.

The practice of the prospettiva de colori.

294.

HOW A PAINTER SHOULD CARRY OUT THE PERSPECTIVE OF COLOUR IN PRACTICE.

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. [14] But I have found that as a rule the second is 4/5 of the first when it is 20 braccia beyond it.

[Footnote: This chapter is one of those copied in the Manuscript of the Vatican library Urbinas 1270, and the original text is rendered here with no other alterations, but in the orthography. H. LUDWIG, in his edition of this copy translates lines 14 and 15 thus: "_Ich finde aber als Regel, dass der zweite um vier Funftel des ersten abnimmt, wenn er namlich zwanzig Ellen vom ersten entfernt ist (?)"_. He adds in his commentary: "_Das Ende der Nummer ist wohl jedenfalls verstummelt_". However the translation given above shows that it admits of a different rendering.]

The rules of aerial perspective (295--297).

295.

OF AERIAL PERSPECTIVE.

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 [Footnote 10: _quado il sole e per leuante_ (when the sun is in the East). Apparently the author refers here to morning light in general. H. LUDWIG however translates this passage from the Vatican copy "_wenn namlich die Sonne (dahinter) im Osten steht_".] when the sun is in the East [Footnote 11: See Footnote 10]. 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.

296.

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.

297.

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.

On the relative density of the atmosphere (298--290).

298.

WHY THE ATMOSPHERE MUST BE REPRESENTED AS PALER TOWARDS THE LOWER PORTION.

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.

299.

OF THE MODE OF TREATING REMOTE OBJECTS IN PAINTING.

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. Hence, O Painter! when you represent mountains, see that from hill to hill the bases are paler than the summits, and in proportion as they recede beyond each other make the bases paler than the summits; while, the higher they are the more you must show of their true form and colour.

On the colour of the atmosphere (300-307).

300.

OF THE COLOUR OF THE ATMOSPHERE.

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. And this may be seen, as I saw it by any one going up [Footnote 5: With regard to the place spoken of as _M'oboso_ (compare No. 301 line 20) its identity will be discussed under Leonardo's Topographical notes in Vol. II.] Monboso, a peak of the Alps which divide France from Italy. The base of this mountain gives birth to the four rivers which flow in four different directions through the whole of Europe. And no mountain has its base at so great a height as this, which lifts itself almost above the clouds; and snow seldom falls there, but only hail in the summer, when the clouds are highest. And this hail lies [unmelted] there, so that if it were not for the absorption of the rising and falling clouds, which does not happen twice in an age, an enormous mass of ice would be piled up there by the hail, and in the middle of July I found it very considerable. There I saw above me the dark sky, and the sun as it fell on the mountain was far brighter here than in the plains below, because a smaller extent of atmosphere lay between the summit of the mountain and the sun. Again as an illustration of the colour of the atmosphere I will mention the smoke of old and dry wood, which, as it comes out of a chimney, appears to turn very blue, when seen between the eye and the dark distance. But as it rises, and comes between the eye and the bright atmosphere, it at once shows of an ashy grey colour; and this happens because it no longer has darkness beyond it, but this bright and luminous space. If the smoke is from young, green wood, it will not appear blue, because, not being transparent and being full of superabundant moisture, it has the effect of condensed clouds which take distinct lights and shadows like a solid body. The same occurs with the atmosphere, which, when overcharged with moisture appears white, and the small amount of heated moisture makes it dark, of a dark blue colour; and this will suffice us so far as concerns the colour of the atmosphere; though it might be added that, if this transparent blue were the natural colour of the atmosphere, it would follow that wherever a larger mass air intervened between the eye and the element of fire, the azure colour would be more intense; as we see in blue glass and in sapphires, which are darker in proportion as they are larger. But the atmosphere in such circumstances behaves in an opposite manner, inasmuch as where a greater quantity of it lies between the eye and the sphere of fire, it is seen much whiter. This occurs towards the horizon. And the less the extent of atmosphere between the eye and the sphere of fire, the deeper is the blue colour, as may be seen even on low plains. Hence it follows, as I say, that the atmosphere assumes this azure hue by reason of the particles of moisture which catch the rays of the sun. Again, we may note the difference in particles of dust, or particles of smoke, in the sun beams admitted through holes into a dark chamber, when the former will look ash grey and the thin smoke will appear of a most beautiful blue; and it may be seen again in in the dark shadows of distant mountains when the air between the eye and those shadows will look very blue, though the brightest parts of those mountains will not differ much from their true colour. But if any one wishes for a final proof let him paint a board with various colours, among them an intense black; and over all let him lay a very thin and transparent [coating of] white. He will then see that this transparent white will nowhere show a more beautiful blue than over the black--but it must be very thin and finely ground.

[Footnote 7: _reta_ here has the sense of _malanno_.]

301.

Experience shows us that the air must have darkness beyond it and yet it appears blue. If you produce a small quantity of smoke from dry wood and the rays of the sun fall on this smoke, and if you then place behind the smoke a piece of black velvet on which the sun does not shine, you will see that all the smoke which is between the eye and the black stuff will appear of a beautiful blue colour. And if instead of the velvet you place a white cloth smoke, that is too thick smoke, hinders, and too thin smoke does not produce, the perfection of this blue colour. Hence a moderate amount of smoke produces the finest blue. Water violently ejected in a fine spray and in a dark chamber where the sun beams are admitted produces these blue rays and the more vividly if it is distilled water, and thin smoke looks blue. This I mention in order to show that the blueness of the atmosphere is caused by the darkness beyond it, and these instances are given for those who cannot confirm my experience on Monboso.

302.

When the smoke from dry wood is seen between the eye of the spectator and some dark space [or object], it will look blue. Thus the sky looks blue by reason of the darkness beyond it. And if you look towards the horizon of the sky, you will see the atmosphere is not blue, and this is caused by its density. And thus at each degree, as you raise your eyes above the horizon up to the sky over your head, you will see the atmosphere look darker [blue] and this is because a smaller density of air lies between your eye and the [outer] darkness. And if you go to the top of a high mountain the sky will look proportionately darker above you as the atmosphere becomes rarer between you and the [outer] darkness; and this will be more visible at each degree of increasing height till at last we should find darkness.

That smoke will look bluest which rises from the driest wood and which is nearest to the fire and is seen against the darkest background, and with the sunlight upon it.

303.

A dark object will appear bluest in proportion as it has a greater mass of luminous atmosphere between it and the eye. As may be seen in the colour of the sky.

304.

The atmosphere is blue by reason of the darkness above it because black and white make blue.

305.

In the morning the mist is denser above than below, because the sun draws it upwards; hence tall buildings, even if the summit is at the same distance as the base have the summit invisible. Therefore, also, the sky looks darkest [in colour] overhead, and towards the horizon it is not blue but rather between smoke and dust colour.

The atmosphere, when full of mist, is quite devoid of blueness, and only appears of the colour of clouds, which shine white when the weather is fine. And the more you turn to the west the darker it will be, and the brighter as you look to the east. And the verdure of the fields is bluish in a thin mist, but grows grey in a dense one.

The buildings in the west will only show their illuminated side, where the sun shines, and the mist hides the rest. When the sun rises and chases away the haze, the hills on the side where it lifts begin to grow clearer, and look blue, and seem to smoke with the vanishing mists; and the buildings reveal their lights and shadows; through the thinner vapour they show only their lights and through the thicker air nothing at all. This is when the movement of the mist makes it part horizontally, and then the edges of the mist will be indistinct against the blue of the sky, and towards the earth it will look almost like dust blown up. In proportion as the atmosphere is dense the buildings of a city and the trees in a landscape will look fewer, because only the tallest and largest will be seen.

Darkness affects every thing with its hue, and the more an object differs from darkness, the more we see its real and natural colour. The mountains will look few, because only those will be seen which are farthest apart; since, at such a distance, the density increases to such a degree that it causes a brightness by which the darkness of the hills becomes divided and vanishes indeed towards the top. There is less [mist] between lower and nearer hills and yet little is to be distinguished, and least towards the bottom.

306.

The surface of an object partakes of the colour of the light which illuminates it; and of the colour of the atmosphere which lies between the eye and that object, that is of the colour of the transparent medium lying between the object and the eye; and among colours of a similar character the second will be of the same tone as the first, and this is caused by the increased thickness of the colour of the medium lying between the object and the eye.

307. OF PAINTING.

Of various colours which are none of them blue that which at a great distance will look bluest is the nearest to black; and so, conversely, the colour which is least like black will at a great distance best preserve its own colour.

Hence the green of fields will assume a bluer hue than yellow or white will, and conversely yellow or white will change less than green, and red still less.