Da Vincian Principle 4: Sfumato

Sfumato — (Literally “going up in smoke”) A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.

As you awaken your curiosity, probe the depths of experience and sharpen your senses, you come face to face with the unknown. Keeping your mind open in the face of uncertainty is the single most powerful secret of unleashing your creative potential.

The word sfumato translates as “turned to mist“ or “going up in smoke” or simply “smoked.” It is used to describe the hazy, mysterious quality of Da Vinci’s paintings created by blurring edges through the application of gossamer-thin layers of paint with miniscule brushstrokes. Leonardo described sfumato as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke … .” This ability to embrace uncertainty by “blurring the edges” and to hold opposites in tension was not only characteristic of his painting, but of his life.

For example, Leonardo’s search for beauty led him to explore and capture ugliness in all its forms. If he spotted a deformed or freakish character on the street, he would spend the day following him and sketching details. His contemplation of opposition and paradox fueled his love for puns, riddles, puzzles and knots. Of course, his supreme expression of paradox is Mona Lisa’s smile. The mystery of that smile has unleashed torrents of ink throughout the ages. And the mystery of her identity has unleashed yet another.

So how can we follow in Da Vinci’s footsteps and develop sfumato?

Make friends with ambiguity — Monitor how you respond to anxiety caused by uncertainty. Do you begin talking excessively, reach for something to eat or bite your fingernails? Once you identify your compulsions, take actions to limit or eradicate them. Also monitor your intolerance for ambiguity. Count the number of times per day you use an absolute, such as “totally,” “always,” “never” or “certainly.”

Meditate on Mona — I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with her at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 2003. Since April 2005, you have to go to the Louvre Museum in Paris for such as experience (which I plan to enjoy this September). However, in lieu of her physical presence, sit down with a photograph of her. Wait for your analytical mind to calm down and breathe in her essence. Note your responses.

Take a little relaxation — When Leonardo was working on The Last Supper, he spent many days on the scaffold, painting from dawn to dusk; then, without warning, he would disappear for a half a day or longer. The prior who contracted his services was not amused, but Da Vinci had learned to trust his incubatory rhythms to maximize his intuition and creativity. In his Treatise on Painting, he counseled,”… it is well that you should often leave off work and take a little relaxation because when you come back you are a better judge.”

Enjoy times of solitude — Although Leonardo loved exchanging ideas with others, he knew his most creative insights came when he was alone. He wrote, “The painter must be solitary. … For if you are alone you are completely yourself, but if you are accompanied by a single companion you are half yourself.” Take time, once or twice a week, to walk alone outdoors or sit quietly listening to music.

Adapted from How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb