Da Vinci’s Disappearing Horse

posted in: Painting | 2

Da Vinci spoke of perspective in terms of a horse. As we move farther from the horse we lose our ability to read the legs, then the head and neck are lost and what is left is only a blurred oval. As we move even farther we see no trace of the horse at all. Sung Dynasty landscape painters had learned that subjects (trees, mountains, figures) loose articulation across distance, not only do objects grow  smaller across distance but also, they become less detailed, smoother and softer along their edges, and their value contrast diminishes as the recede. Eventually they blend with other areas and lose their separation from their surroundings. Manet had observed this as well. He noticed that when the subject was moving we would also lose discernment of the parts that were moving. He sketched racing horses and  draws just the torsos of the horse with a blur below where legs should be.

When I paint a scene suggesting a city street thick with pedestrians as I have in example 1, I imagine looking at the scene filled with motion  and viewed from a distance not unlike Manet capturing distant legless racing horses.  My pedestrians are blurred with more pronounced forms in their torso areas and  less  where their legs or arms might be. I follow Da Vinci’s advice because, it corresponds to my own observations which I further exaggerated for theatrical effect.  Example 2 shows the photograph (after my Photo shopping effects) that sparked example 1.

example 1. figures in Times Square,april14,21,city moves, oil and mixed media on arches, 13x13_edited-2

example 2. photo which prompted the painting in example 1.april14,21,times square study2_edited-1

example 3. figures in a Canted Crosswalk,april14,21,city, Luminous Dissolve, oil and mixed media on arches, 13x13_edited-2

example 4. photo which prompted the painting in example 3.april14,21,nyc streets6b_edited-2

Example 3 presents more motion by canting the picture plane as well as blurring much of the visual information.  Again, areas suggestive of distant figures  offer few particulars for appendages like legs and arms. And, there are color and value shifts occurring over distance. The dark foreground here is overlaid by discontinuous linear perspective lines.  The colors have reversed their respective roles with yellow now pushing the darker blue area forward, toward the viewer. Notice in example 4 ( the photo that prompted the painting in example 3) the foreground is completely blown out with light and therefore doesn’t signal as strong a feeling of space as example 3.

Da Vinci also wrote of the shifts in color over distance, how change and desaturate or get paler over distance. He considered that our eye caused us to see blue in the distance with yellows and greens fading away.  His notebooks omit the observation that complementary colors could propel one colored area forward while thrusting another area back.

The distance does not have to be on a horizontal plane on earth. We can also experience distance or space by looking into shallow areas such a pool of water. The surface has more articulated edges while the area beneath the surface is unified through blurring. Blurring  below-the-surface material  encourages a feeling of minor depth to the water.  This blurring also suggests movement as well as space. Example 5 presents a photo which has not yet  been Photo shopped. Example 6, presents the same image after Photo shopping effects as they begin to emphasize the blurry bottom. Example 7 presents the image with a subsurface area of blurry indistinctness which feels separate from the more articulated water circle patterns on the surface.

example 5. original untouched photo.april14,21 original water photo

example 6.   the same photo after special effects to stimulate more motion and space. Notice the design has been squashed into a square shape to make the water circles appear more elliptical.april14,21 original water photo after photo shop

example 7. oil painting,24×24. Notice that each successive manifestation became a very different image.april14,21, origin,water circles,Bright Rhythms, oil on anodized aluminum,24x24_edited-3

This winter I presented a painting in this blog which I have since altered ( example 8). I made these changes because, the image could offer a stronger feeling of space and animation. Example 8 presents a distant stripe of blue set above a stripe of pink. They are both about the same thickness and therefore thwart a strong reading of space. If the blue stripe could be made thinner and, if there could be two overlapping stripes in the distance and, if they could be more dissolved along their edges then  I could create a deeper feeling of  space.  I also realized that if I could offer more particulars in the front (the lower area of the painting) with more  intersecting shapes then I could push the background further away.  By building a texture of more variety in the foreground and more uniformity in the background I created more space (example 9). The principles were DaVinci’s.

example 8. See how the horizontal bands are all of a similar thickness preventing strong feeling of depth.april14,21,devils den winter marsh step1

example 9. the horizontal bands now go from thicker to thinner as we move from the lower part of the painting to the top. The thinnest blurriest bands are the most distant.april14,21,devils den winter marsh step2.


If you are interested in learning more about perspective effects then I invite you to contact the Cross Roads Art Center in Richmond, Va. where I hope to be offering a workshop on the forms of perspective in May. See my website’s list of workshops for details.



2 Responses

  1. Fredric Neuwirth

    Amazon has a number of books on Da Vinci; the Notebooks , the Journals. What do y0u recommend?

    The Man seems to be an endless inspiration of ideas; from canting the picture plane, blurring the object, diminishing the color. It all works.

    #8 & #9 are very different in feeling as well as in composition. I assume #8 no longer exist?

    Example #7 is a good abstraction from the photoshop version.

  2. Roger Brown

    Thanks David…very interesting blog. Some of the finest moments I have in my painting come with the realization that a “finished” painting might be improved upon and then doing it. Flies in the face of what’s done is done. Fun!

    Best Regards,

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