If Leonardo da Vinci had never produced a single painting, he would still be remembered as a brilliant scientist, inventor and writer. In fact, it was this very combination of artistic prowess and mastery of science that made da Vinci such a revolutionary painter. And at
the very heart of his artistry was light.
He pioneered the technique of chiaroscuro (meaning
light-dark), using contrast to create three-dimensional
form. ‘ This perfection of the art depends on the correct
distribution of lights and shades,’ da Vinci wrote.
Indeed, ‘if the painter… avoids shadows, he may be
said to avoid the glory of the art, and to render his
work despicable to real connoisseurs’.
Da Vinci kept extensive notes on how to deploy light
and shade in painting, and after his death these were
compiled and published. Here, we present a selection
of those writings.
Today’s lighting scientists, benefiting from a further
500 years of scientific progress, might wish to refine
some of his deductions about why light behaves the
way it does. But his advice on how to use it remains as
sound now as it was in the 16th century.