If you ever want to know how a true artist thinks, check their sketchbook. If that artist happens to be Leonardo Da Vinci, then prepare to open up the mind of a true savant.
While finished works often take centre stage, sketches and drawings are where the rehearsals for definitive performances are created. How artists interpret the world, and the way they explore an idea by scribbling it down on a piece of paper without consciously editing, means the results can be truly illuminating.
Everyone has heard of Leonardo da Vinci – the polymath, painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, military engineer and draftsman – but how he became one of the leading lights in all these subjects is perhaps something not everyone knows about.
His drawings tell us the whole process and shows us the journey across these creative disciplines and the chapters of his rich life – crossing courts, kings and empires. Fortunately for us, Da Vinci saved all of his sketches and doodles, right from the start when he was a young unknown painter, right to the end of his life as a well-respected half-blind (and surprisingly old for the time) artist sculpting and drawing for the courts. Handy then, that the court’s vanity of immortalising their figures in paint and stone invited some of the most detailed sketches from Da Vinci himself.
As a young artist, da Vinci’s drawings show us the first signs of his curiosity, drawing all his commissions repeatedly in diverse ways and from different perspectives – almost becoming obsessive in his quest for the perfect viewpoint. Unsatisfied with the range offered by these special commissions, he wanted to widen his talent and be known as more than just an artist, so he went into architecture and engineering. Here, his drawings show more of his study of light, colour, proportions, anatomy and other scientific subjects that would befit his development as an artistic master.
He became more interested in the scientific basis of painting from the middle of his life – seemingly unchallenged by being one of the most prolific court painters and sculptors of his day. To paraphrase da Vinci, he once said that science illustration should be a sensible, objective depiction of life, that it should include movement, proportion, and nature. To best capture the subjects, he experimented with almost every sketching medium of the day – from a time-consuming and prep-heavy technique called metalpoint to brush, pencil, quill and ink.
Proving his worth to his sponsors and contemporaries went beyond his art – he ended up using his talent for invention, based on studies of nature, architecture, science, form and function to design engineering structures and mechanisms and weapons of war. This elevated him to far more than the role of court artist.
This idea occupied him for the rest of his life, and all his drawings become elaborate allegories. In the way he depicts objects, the forms seem to take on deeper meanings – exploring life, death, love, and virtue.
To him, and to us as observers many centuries later, these sketches were not just studies, practice or a rough draft of a subject. They are a quest for perfection. And as if the countless perspectives of the subjects were part of an elaborate attempts to picture all life. He wrote his thoughts of what he tried to capture, annotating where he believed he hadn’t done the subject justice as a personal reference to improve for next time. Da Vinci’s sketches are the most successfully survived drawings from the Renaissance and they’re now on display at the Queen’s gallery.
The Queen’s gallery is holding the exhibition which marks the 500thanniversary of the death of da Vinci. The Exhibition showcase more than 200 of the polymath greatest sketches and drawings and is supposed to be the largest display of his work in over 65 years. The exhibition ticket includes an audio tour – which covered the key points of da Vinci’s work and life.
Needless to say, it’s worth going to see these extraordinary drawings up-close and personal. It’s mind-boggling to realise that da Vinci’s voracious appetite for capturing life in all its glorious forms finds us inspired almost half a century later.
Leonardo da Vinci: Life in Drawing, will be displayed until 13thOct 2019. Prices: Adult £13.50/ Student £10.80
Address: Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1A 1AA
For more information – Queen’s Gallery