Principles from Leonardo da Vinci and the Sung Dynasty

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Over 11 hundred years ago, toward the end of the Tang Dynasty, artists were perfecting a form of landscape painting. This process continued to achieve great subtlety and poetic power in the later Sung Dynasties. The first painting example you see is from the late Southern Sung period, which ends around 1279 C.E. (formerly A.D.). The artists, Hsia Kuei demonstrates a principle for creating space taught to Sung artists as Near/Middle/Far distance. These categories could be reduced to just two, Near/Far. Curiously, about 500 years ago Leonardo da Vinci outlined five polar principles of painting: light/dark, color/body, shape/location, stillness/motion, and near/far. These contrasting principles of Leonardo appear to correspond with principles in Chinese landscape painting. For now I speak only of the near/far principle. Paintings require a unifying system, a harmonizing set of qualities. Near/Far as expressed by da Vinci and earlier by Kuo Hsi offers such a unifying effect. In da Vinci’s Benci portrait, which can be found in the National Gallery in Washington, the foliage surrounding the face is distinct, precise and dark compared to the infinite distance that is pale blue and without the texture complexity of the foreground. Chinese painting realized the importance of suggesting infinite space as the antithesis of “near.” The painting offers an eternal territory for the mind to wander. The Chinese viewer was expected to wander, gaze, roam and eventually reside with their thoughts in the painting. In my painting, the last of the three paintings, I present the transition between near and far, the near area is more precisely described and the far area is vaguely suggested. I am using a quality of perception neuroscientists refer to as gradient shifting. The variable size and crispness of proximate components diminish and amalgamate as the visual field recedes. All three paintings employ the principle of Near vs. Far as a tool to invite the viewer into the picture, to hold their attention and to unify the visual field of the painting.

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