For the past few months, we've been following the life of Leonardo da Vinci, looking for clues into his extraordinary creativity. Our journey has taken us along a course marked by several attributes identified by author Michael J. Gelb as “the da Vincian principles of creativity.” Like da Vinci, Gelb believes these qualities are inherent in all people and can be developed like physical skills through rigorous use.

So far, we've analyzed three of Gelb's seven principles: curiosita (intellectual curiosity), dimonstrazione (the scientific method of proof), and sensazione (the refinement of our senses). Here we examine the fourth, sfumato, which the author describes as a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.

As a painter, da Vinci certainly strived to capture elements of ambiguity in his work. I imagine he must have discarded many fine paintings, judging them too sterile or plain. In 1503, however, at the urging of his father, he began doing a portrait of a family friend, Lisa Gherardini, that would become his most enigmatic and acclaimed work. That painting, of course, is the Mona Lisa, and in it, da Vinci displays his mastery of sfumato in both method and effect.

According to art experts, the application of the technique is especially evident in the Mona Lisa's face, particularly her lips and eyes. Here, da Vinci achieves lifelike shadowing and softness, not with brush strokes, but with layers upon layers of tiny dots — sfumato. As intended, the resulting three-dimensional matrix of color reflects light in such a way that the facial features seem to continue beyond what the eye interprets as boundaries and edges, beyond the focus plane.

Historians believe it took da Vinci four years to complete his oil-on-poplar masterpiece. When he finished, in 1507, Lisa Gherardini was just 28 years old. To this day, half a millennium later, the debate continues: Are the shadows around her lips a result of a smile, or is the suggestion of a smile the result of the shadows? And why is she smiling? The answers are forever veiled in da Vinci's skillful use of sfumato, creating an interesting parallel to the literal meaning of the word itself, “to vanish, evaporate, or go up in smoke.”

Da Vinci applied sfumato not only as a painter, however. He also employed it as an agile thinker. More than anything else, da Vinci was annoyed by closed-mindedness. He once said that “the greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions,” and his accomplishments suggest that he knew how to keep his from getting in the way.

It seems rather likely that da Vinci worked his mind like his paintings. He disciplined himself to allow ideas to form without boundaries and borders, sfumato style, like colors and tones blending without edges and lines. Even for someone as brilliant as Leonard da Vinci, prior knowledge and opinion can be detriments to creativity because they tend to be rigid and weighty.

Think of the mind, for a moment, as a garden. Unless the soil is fluid and penetrable, the emergent stems of creative thought are unlikely to see the light of day. Da Vinci kept his mind fertile by breaking down the “clumps” to the point where he could deal with uncertainty, paradox, and conflicting information, and he must have made the connection from sfumato in painting to its application in thinking.

I was planning to take the story one step further and make a connection to a topic near and dear to my heart, mechatronics, but I see I'm up against the rigid borders of the printed page. For the rest of the way, we'll continue our discussion in the Knowledge FAQtory at motionsystemdesign.com.