Sfumato and Other Things

Born in 1452, Leonardo da Vinci grew up in Florence, a city dominated by the work of Early Italian Renaissance artists such as Verrocchio and Donatello.

The figurative frescoes of Masaccio portrayed realism and emotion.

Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, adorned with gleaming gold leaf, featured figures against detailed architectural backgrounds to produce complex compositions.

Piero della Francesca carried out a detailed study of perspective, and was the first painter to make a scientific study of light.

Such artists were to have a profound influence on Leonardo’s own observations and art.

Donatello’s David had a humanist influence which was to be seen in Leonardo’s later paintings, particularly ‘John the Baptist’.

Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden – a powerful expression of the human form, making strong use of light and shade to create a three-dimensional effect.

Light and shade were later developed in the works of Leonardo in a way that was to be influential in the course of art.

Leonardo was also greatly influenced by Netherlandish painting techniques which arrived in Florence with Hugo van der Goes Portinari Altarpiece (1476).

Qualities which define Leonardo’s work are as follows:

Pioneering techniques for the laying on of paint

Exploratory use of alternative substrates e.g. the cottonwood panelling to which the Mona Lisa owes its longevity

Detailed knowledge of anatomy, light, botany and geology

Interest in physiognomy and the ways in which humans register emotion in expressions and gestures

Innovative use of the human form in figurative compositions

The use of subtle gradation of tone

Use of natural hues.

All of these characteristics feature in Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Last Supper, and the Virgin on the Rocks.

Da Vinci’s work has had a deep and lasting influence on subsequent art.

Leonardo remained true to the Renaissance tradition whilst incorporating innovative techniques into the production of his art. Techniques which have routinely been adopted by artists since da Vinci’s pioneering first use.

The vanishing point, used to such great effect in da Vinci’s Last Supper, creates a sense of being in the picture – or placement, and is a way of adding drama. Additionally, perspective in a painting produces a feeling of three-dimensionality – giving depth to paintings.

The use of light and shade, or chiaroscuro, also gives art a three-dimensional feel and was used by both Caravaggio and Rembrandt to create drama in their art.

Sfumato, a ‘smoky’ quality of the shadows in a painting, adds realism by blurring or softening the edges of adjacent objects.

Sfumato equates to soft focus in photography and can be observed in the still-life paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin which provide one, two or maybe three perches for the eyes to rest on, with the remainder of each painting being out of focus.

The Mona Lisa is an outstanding example of da Vinci’s use of both chiaroscuro and sfumato.

Figure 1. clearly shows da Vinci’s use of sfumato around the bridge of the nose, the area surrounding the eyes, and under the chin.


Fig 1: Da Vinci, 1503. Mona Lisa – detail, sfumato

Figure 2. illustrates da Vinci’s use of chiaroscuro – note the contrast between the light area of skin on the hands and the dark fabric of the clothing.

Lisa_Detail 2

Fig 2: Da Vinci, 1503. Mona Lisa – detail, chiaroscuro

Ginevra_Lisa 2.jpgFig 3: Da Vinci, 1474 & 1503. Ginevra de’ Benci & Mona Lisa

Figure 3. compares two portraits separated by a 29 period, Da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci (1474) and Mona Lisa (1503).

The use of aerial perspective, chiaroscuro and sfumato can be seen in both paintings, if to differing degrees.

In terms of style, I feel that Ginevra de’ Benci has as much in keeping with paintings by artists both other earlier to and contemporary with da Vinci, for example Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition (1436), as it does with da Vinci’s later work – compare the palette used by da Vinci for Ginevra de’ Benci against the palette used for Mona Lisa and against van der Weyden’s Deposition, Mona Lisa stands out as exemplifying da Vinci’s favoured palette of natural hues.


Rogier van der Weyden, 1436. Deposition

Mona Lisa represents a refinement in da Vinci’s techniques, and whilst the refinement in technique, the change in the laying on of paint, might be subtle, the result is pronounced – with the refinement comes with realism.

Da Vinci’s influence can very clearly be seen in the work of Caravaggio, for example Sick Bacchus (1594), especially in terms of chiaroscuro.


Caravaggio, 1594. Sick Bacchus

Sfumato is most readily associated with da Vinci, perhaps because of the high esteem with which Mona Lisa is held. Whilst da Vinci can be credited with popularising the use of sfumato, he cannot be credited as being either the first or the only artist to use the technique.


Petrus Christus, 1446. Portrait of a Carthusian

When described as a smooth transition from light to dark without the use of lines or borders, arguably, we can observe the use of sfumato in Petrus Christus’ Portrait of a Carthusian (1446), noting, in a painting with a high degree of photo-realism, the gradual transition from shade to light occurring across the right side of the sitter’s face and especially between the right ear and right eye.

In terms of significance for my practice, my intention is to explore the use of chiaroscuro and sfumato by producing a series of images which study the texture of food.

Practically, chiaroscuro can be achieved photographically by arranging the subject so that it is bathed in pools of dappled light, light which, in photographic terminology, is ‘shaped’ and ‘hard’. I would suggest that the contrast needed for effective, ’dramatic’ chiaroscuro is somewhere between 6 to 8 stops.

Sfumato can be achieved in photographic images through the use of selective focusing and shallow depth of field.

I see this as an alternative to the ubiquitous, almost industry-standard lighting used in contemporary food photography. Arguably, contemporary food imaging exists exclusively to sell food, or promote food in some way. Images of food rarely seem to exist in their own right as something aesthetically pleasing.

Still-life, as a genre of painting, has thrived on making the mundane seem beautiful. Surely food photography can adopt the same approach?


Further Reading:

De Rynck, Patrick (2015). ‘How to Read a Painting: Decoding, Understanding and Enjoying the Old Masters’. London: Thames and Hudson Limited

Hockney, D. (2001). ‘Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters’. London, Thames & Hudson Limited

Leonardoda-vinci.org (2017). ‘The Biography of Leonardo da Vinci’. Leonardoda-vinci.org [online]. Available at: https://www.leonardoda-vinci.org/biography.html (accessed: Monday 31 July 2017)

Leonartodavinci.weebly.com (2017). ‘Da Vinci’s Impact on the Art World’. Leonartodavinci.weebly.com [online]. Available at: http://leonartodavinci.weebly.com/art-impact.html (accessed: Monday 17 July 2017)

Louvre.fr (2017). ‘Mona Lisa – Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, Wife of Francesco del Giocondo’. Louvre.fr [online]. Available at: http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/mona-lisa-portrait-lisa-gherardini-wife-francesco-del-giocondo (accessed: Monday 31 July 2017)

Monalisa.org (2017). ‘The Genius of Leonardo da Vinci: Perspective’. Monalisa.org [online]. Available at: http://monalisa.org/2013/12/15/genius-leonardo-da-vinci-perspective / (accessed: Monday 31 July 2017)

On Reflection: Week 8, Module Three

To begin, group dynamics interests me. So, it was with some enthusiasm that I began to research the characteristics of successful, effective workshops this week.

I felt that it was very important to get my ideas down on paper before looking at anything being delivered by my contemporaries – I didn’t want my thoughts to be influenced by the things I had read before pulling my own ideas on workshops from the back of my mind.

It was quite reassuring to find that what I thought should be included in a food photography workshop was actually very close to anything being offered by my contemporaries. Also reassuring was that any differences were in my favour (or the clients – depending upon how you look at it), for example, some things which I thought should be included as a fairly basic offering weren’t in fact offered by other photographers.

How do I feel about workshops? Or more pertinently, how did I feel about workshops at the start of the week? And how has this changed, if at all, by the end of the week?

I’m a fan of workshops. And I have been in a position to provide training to both individuals and small groups in a workshop type manner on several occasions. In my view success comes down to two basic things: knowing your subject, and preparation. That might be stating the obvious, but I have also been a participant in many workshops, in a number of settings, and quite frankly a lot of these workshops have been found lacking, being far from a positive experience.

From a participant’s perspective, there is an equally simple expectation (at least in my view) – to have more knowledge and experience at the finish than at the beginning, but not having really been aware at any time that you were being taught.

In essence, good teachers effectively impart knowledge without the learning process being a chore.

So, after a week of research and preparation, I have delivered my first workshop covering the basics of the photographic process. I feel it was successful, and those that participated also expressed positive thoughts. There were no problems at any time during the workshop, and at no time did I realise any mistakes requiring correction (there’s nothing quite like a live audience for highlighting technical errors). Of course, there will always be opportunities for improvement.

As seems to be the way at the moment, the exercise generated as many questions as it provided answers.

Which of my contemporaries runs workshops, and how are these set up?

What other offerings do contemporaries have?

What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages?

There are almost as many food photography workshops as there are food photographers. So, the question becomes, how can I differentiate myself from the competition in this area?

Looking to the future, I envisage workshops being both an extremely valuable resource and important revenue stream.

So, a positive experience? Yes, unquestionably.

‘A System of Visual Editing’

‘Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one’s cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time. Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite’

– John Szarkowski (in Sontag, p. 192)



Sontag, Susan (1977). On Photography. London: Penguin Books Limited

On Reflection: Week 7, Module Three

Investigating the various forms that photographic publications can take has proven to be a mixed bag, being both frustrating and informative.

Platforms for the creation of photobooks are not equal. Interfaces are not always ‘user friendly’, and some could be best described as time wasting and ‘ambiguous’: work which you have saved isn’t, changing one menu option takes you right back to the start of the process, etc. Some, on the other hand, are a dream to use.

Notwithstanding the frustration, exploring the publication of photobooks in depth has been interesting. It is a subject for ongoing research – I can see the benefits of using photobooks as a method of disseminating my work and consequently I want to increase my knowledge on this subject. It’s also an area for ongoing evaluation which, at the moment, is taking two forms. Firstly, I eagerly await the arrival of my prototype photobook for analysis, and secondly, obtaining swatches of the various materials available for producing photobooks for appraisal.

The activity has confirmed some strengths: not surprisingly project planning, costing and product development.

It has also highlighted some weaknesses – marketing specific to photographic publications, publishing itself, and graphic design.

Taking an in-depth study of workbooks will provide an additional chance to explore the marketing skills specific to the publication of photographic literature.

Looking at themes both in general, and more specifically for photobooks, has lead me to look at the use of photobooks in relation to food photography – and it appears to be an area which is far from oversaturated.

So, going forwards, how other food and/or still-life photographers have produced photobooks, if at all, is the next port of call.

Research for a future project threw up something noteworthy this week.

Patrick Keast, a recovering alcoholic, was encouraged to take up photography by workers on a recovery programme. His gritty images document the journeys to and from recovery meetings – his work, exhibited in late 2016, really caught my attention this week. In a word, outstanding.


Further Reading:


‘The Reciprocal Nature of Vision’

‘If we accept that we can see that hill over there, we propose that from that hill we can be seen. The reciprocal nature of vision is more fundamental than that of spoken dialogue. And often dialogue is an attempt to verbalise this – an attempt to explain how, either metaphorically or literally, ‘you see things’, and an attempt to discover how ‘he sees things’.



Berger, John (2008). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books Limited

Photobooks and Other Publications

My Books

Morris, 2017. Pilebrary

I am, most certainly, one to embrace technology. Having said that, I feel that nothing can even begin to approach the wonderful experience of reading from a printed book. For me selecting a book, touching it, even smelling it, are as important as the visual interaction of seeing, looking, reading.

Ebooks and the devices which enable them to be read have their place, several textbooks can be loaded on to a reader and make the act of studying on the move, for example, much easier – not least of all because of the reduction in weight which results from not having to transport heavy texts. But still, nothing can replace a physical text.

Books are a thing of beauty. Libraries are palaces of knowledge and mind-expanding entertainment. If printed books should ever come to be totally replaced by electronic forms of media, I think it would be a very sad day for humanity.

The same can be said for printed photographs. Digital images are marvellous things in their own right, and digital media allows for an extended range of expression, the digital artistry facilitated by Photoshop for example.

But what happens when the world of books meets that of the printed photographic image?

I would suggest that under such circumstances, a most popular notion is that of the photobook.

I have previously stated that the intention is for my final project to be in the form of an online gallery. Numerous reasons continue to justify that statement. However, various other ‘surfaces’, or modes of presentation, exist to enable the publishing of photographic anthologies, for making authored photographic work available, to the public, through printed or electronic media. These are referred to in figure 1, which is the output from a brainstorming session.

Publications Brainstorm II_10Aug2017

Figure 1. Publications Brainstorm Output

Consequently, the chosen format for my publication, a means by which I theoretically and practically explore producing a publication, is a photobook.

I feel it is important at this stage to try to determine what it is that distinguishes between a photograph album and a photobook.

What model was used in order to organise the images in a photo album? Were images simply placed into an album in the order in which they were taken? In which case a chronological frame of reference was used, perhaps unwittingly. Can this help us differentiate between the two formats?

Tate.org.uk (2017) defines a photobook accordingly: ‘the photobook is a book of photographs by a photographer that has an overarching theme or follows a storyline’.

Is it really the presence of a narrative in a photobook, and the absence of the same from a photo album, which determines exactly which entity we are looking at?

Whilst it is a good working definition, I don’t think that the situation is so clear cut. Take, for example, our photographs placed into a photo album in the order in which they are taken. These images still tell a story, possibly the story of the photographer’s journey through life, or perhaps the development over time of the subject of the photographs. Such images still provide a trace of something having existed, and it is progressive.

This is currently an exercise to identify questions relating to the process of publishing a photobook.

Some issues are common to all forms of presentation, for example, identifying target audiences, and the sequencing of images.

Again, figure 1 outlines the issues associated with publishing a photobook.

Project work has been subject to a hiatus recently, in practical terms. As a result, a series of images taken during the earlier part of module three have been sequenced in order to produce the dummy publication.

A key task, and a major consumer of time, has been sorting the ‘wheat from the chaff’. The platforms for the creation of photobooks are numerous but not equal.

But rather a discourse in what hasn’t worked, focus on what has …

Blurb.co.uk offers an interface which is user friendly, and provides a number of options in terms of output, for example, orientation, type of cover, and paper type. ‘Blurb’ has proven to be a positive experience for me, so far at least.

Currently on order, then, is 1 x landscape 25 x 20 cm, soft cover prototype with 22 pages, to be printed on premium lustre paper of weight 148 g/m2.

I think that the quality of a photobook reflects more on the photographer, who may have only supplied the images and had very little to do with the physical aspect of producing the book, than it does the printer who a major role in this activity.

In terms of photobooks, the printer, who physically makes the book, with images supplied by the photographer, is viewed as remote, almost distant from the process – if given any regard at all, by the viewer.

With regard to outsourced, printed photobooks, price is a reasonable indicator of quality, but it is no cast iron guarantee of a product’s finish – there isn’t a clear correlation between cost and quality.

So, this is a starting point, a point at which to begin the process of photobook publishing. I see it as a dummy run, establishing a formula which can be repeated if successful, but which has parameters which if necessary can be incrementally, individually adjusted in order to reach an acceptable output.

I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product, and determining where we move to next, dependent upon the quality, and how.

Additionally, I am very interested to see how the photobook translates from electronic to printed media? Will any artefacts be created as a result of the conversion process?

What am I taking away from this experience?

Well, I’m starting to ask more probing questions.

Is one format of photobook more popular than any other, for example? If so, what? And upon what is this dependent?

How does format add to or subtract from the narrative? Or the overall viewing experience? What about the other physical characteristics of the book?

What will make my photobook appealing? What will make people ‘reach out’ to my work? I think people want to engage for a few reasons – sharing an interest, which may already be established or which may be new, or sharing knowledge, or both?

How do I want the audience to interact with the book? Do I want them to spend time looking at each image, before moving to the next? Or do I want them to move through the items in sequence before starting the process again? How will reading ahead affect the narrative?

What level of intimacy do I want with the audience? Do I want to tell them everything in images which leave little to be discovered? Or do I use complex, layered images which require the viewer to spend time studying and searching in order to decode?

Photobooks are something which I believe I can successfully incorporate into my offering. A significant amount of information will be gleaned from analysing my prototype publication. Moving forward, this is a body of knowledge I wish to extend.



Tate.org ca. 2017. Glossary entry: ‘photobook’ [Online]. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/p/the-photobook (Accessed: Friday 14 July 2017)



On Reflection: Week 6, Module Three

On the agenda this week, prepare for an exhibition to take place between 11 and 18 August.

Exhibitions are complex projects to undertake, requiring skillsets from a number of disciplines – that much was clear before the outset.

Delving deep into the subject of exhibitions: trying to highlight best practice, identify problem areas and possible solutions, and confirm areas for further research, has turned out to be a solid investment of time, has turned out to be informative and quite interesting.

Whilst some of the points discussed in ‘On Exhibitions …’ might be perceived as common sense, arguably being so obvious makes such points more easily overlooked and therefore adds to the value of covering them.

Exploring the hands-on, creative aspect of exhibiting has been incredibly appealing. There is something deeply, inherently satisfying about making things – mounting and framing photographs is a creative activity I have always enjoyed.

The research has highlighted several areas for further research, areas in which my knowledge is clearly lacking, areas such as copyright and other legal issues associated with exhibiting; funding, sponsorship and the legal obligations associated with sponsorship; and contracts between the exhibitor and the venue.

It’s interesting to step back and look at how we think. We automatically assume the obvious. Why would I want to stage an exhibition? The easy answer, perhaps the ‘lazy’ answer is because I want people to look at my images. After some interrogation, that isn’t a real answer at all. More valid answers range from it being a mutually beneficial experience for both myself and any venue offering exhibition space, through to it providing networking opportunities.

An important question to answer with some clarity. Anyone who is in a position to grant access to exhibition space will only do so after some convincing, you’ve got to sell yourself. And you can only do that if you have belief in yourself and understand your own motives. In short, if you want to convince someone else, first convince yourself.

The aim of this week’s research has been to increase my knowledge in relation to staging an exhibition, to facilitate staging an exhibition to a professional standard, and to enhance the viewing experience. An exhibition is an interaction between the artist and the audience, with the artwork acting as an intermediary: small details make a huge difference.

So, have I achieved my objective? Yes, for me this week has been most productive. I’m certainly taking away a much greater understanding with regard to staging an exhibition, a deeper understanding of psychological responses to art and their implications for the sequencing of images – the latter being an area of study which I find compelling.

As a final point, purely for interest, as a qualified accountant, it has been quite entertaining to read the various methods suggested for the pricing of artwork.

On Reflection: Week 5, Module Three

The brief for week five was to commence preparatory work for three discrete activities: an exhibition, a publication and a workshop.

The exhibition is to take place between the 11 and 18 August, whilst the publication and workshop don’t have a completion deadline.

Excellent preparation for the main exhibition in twelve months, a chance to have a ‘dummy run’ and identify any issues which may arise.

However, life sometimes gets in the way.

Moving home is one of the most stressful events in life – no matter how many times you may have moved, it never gets any easier. And there’s never an especially good time to move.

Circumstances related to this particular house move have made it impossible for me to contribute to the exhibition.

Notwithstanding the constraints imposed by the move itself, there will be a subsequent period where we will be without an internet connection.

OK, so there are ways around that, aren’t there. Yes, of course.

Complicating things further – a severe knee injury. I’m immobile for the foreseeable future. Severely debilitated, accessing alternative internet resources is impossible at the moment – as is any photography.

The exhibition is to take place in an area local to each student, with an online ‘Landing’ page featuring details of each contributing photographer together with thumbnails examples of his or her work.

Due to the global nature of the ‘Landing’ page, together with the deadline of 11 to 18 August for the physical exhibition, it is just not possible to complete the necessary work within the timeframe.

Whilst the exhibition, publication and workshop are not a compulsory part of the course, not being able to contribute to the exhibition is still a major disaster for me.

What could I have done to prevent this?

Well, if sufficient notice can be given to the ISP – at least 20 days, the internet can be up and running on the day you move in. This wasn’t an option in our case, once things started to move the situation just snowballed – the whole move was decided on and completed within twenty days.

And as for the injury, how do you legislate for such things?

So, the question becomes what can I do as an alternative?

During the ‘downtime’, the period when we will be without an internet connection, planning for an exhibition can still take place.

This seems to me to be a good investment of time, a chance to interrogate the process of staging an exhibition and of course, having established the dates of 11 – 18 August are not achievable, there is no reason why I can’t stage an individual exhibition in my local area at a later date.

Planning can also take place for the publication, and the workshop – again, opportunities to question how things might operate.

Turning negatives into positives, current circumstances should result in my producing some pretty comprehensive and robust project plans.

Some research will be required, I am fully aware that my knowledge relating to the staging of an exhibition is somewhat patchy.

Activities aside, time as well to pull things together generally, to consolidate. Things seem a little disjointed at the moment.

Lots still to be getting on with.