In Italian, the word sfumato literally means, “going up in smoke” but is recognized to artists as a technique that allows colors to blend without borders.
Leonardo Da Vinci was a master at this technique and displayed his sfumato talents in works like The Virgin of the Rocks, and St. John the Baptist. Besides his artistry, Da Vinci also found an alternative meaning to sfumato. He used sfumato as a principle to help him embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. In keeping an open mind during times of uncertainty, he found that he had unlocked a free flow of creativity. As an active learner, he began to confront ambiguity in search for contrasting paradoxes.
To better understand beauty, Da Vinci explored ugliness.
To appreciate flowers, he studied rocks.
To recognize youths, he considered the elderly.
Through his awareness, he created the most famous paradox of all: Mona Lisa.
In Michael J. Gelb’s, How to Think like Leonardo Da Vinci, he wrote,
“Mona Lisa’s smile lies on the cusp of good and evil, compassion and cruelty, seduction and innocence, the fleeting and the eternal. She is the Western equivalent of the Chinese symbol of yin and yang” (146).
It’s no wonder that it’s the most famous work of art in the world, it’s the popularity of paradoxes.
Gabrielle Chanel had an equally successful time defining herself and the Chanel brand through a series of paradoxes. Before 1920, women were still wearing clothing that was made to enhance curves. Corsets, hoop skirts, and bustles were a part of the everyday female wardrobe. In 1926 Gabrielle created the little black dress, that was picked up by American Vogue and hailed as,
“The Chanel ‘Ford’ Dress, the frock that all the world will wear”.
What made this dress such a paradox was that Gabrielle took garments from men’s wardrobes to enhance the female figure. The simple, straight dress resembled a pair of loose fitting men’s trousers, yet made women look more feminine.
Another paradox that Gabrielle loved to tease with was her relationship between real and fake. Costume jewelry was a trademark for Chanel, layering a dozen strands of fake pearl necklaces with one real gemstone piece. Her simplistic outfits served as a canvas for the different layers of her costume jewelry and suggested that cheap was luxurious. Jewelry had now become a household trend where the fake pearl necklaces now existed within a real, luxurious lifestyle.
Like Da Vinci, Gabrielle found success when she practiced openness in sfumato. She allowed herself to sit with vagueness to create fashions that the world had not yet dreamed of. Like the paradox of gargoyles perched on the walls of cathedrals, they do this to highlight the holiness of saints. One cannot exist without the other, and one would not be appreciated without the other.
The tension of opposites has a unique ability to pull ideas together in ways that may not be so outwardly clear. Sfumato helps to reorganize what is accessible to the human gaze and creates connections through all things despite their unlikeness. It’s about learning new ways to think about our capacity for doubt and how rewarding it can be to be comfortable in the uncomfortable.