“Without a doubt [Leonardo’s] drawing was a source of solace, of tuning out the world, and of capturing it as well.  Consider those early lost drawings not for their focus on some particular thing, like a twig or a frog, as would be usual, but for what’s blocked out.  They are psychological documents as well as artistic.  Any drawing is.  Most importantly, one senses that the act of drawing became his way to learn about a thing.  It was how he contemplated the world.”
— Mike Lankford, Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa, contour-line drawing

Mona Lisa, contour-line drawing

“One of Leonardo’s greatest discoveries as a child had to be the power of his own left  hand.  It must’ve seemed magical to him at first — and to everyone else.  Not only could it capture reality and put it on paper, but the effort of drawing a thing seemed to inform him as well, as if he knew it better afterwards.  As if he owned it afterwards.  As if to study something closely enough to draw accurately was also to learn it deeply all over its surface, to absorb the thing through visual touch.  For him, drawing was a way of knowing the world, and he learned that as a child.  Self-taught, it seems clear.”
— Mike Lankford, Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

I had the opportunity to read an advanced reader copy of Mike Lankford’s Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci.  This new biography of Leonardo da Vinci will be released in March 2017.  I was drawn into the life of Leonardo by the sheer imagination of the author.  He seems to have put himself into the shoes of a Renaissance man, using clues from places Leonardo lived, historic events that would have been talked about in homes at the time, and jottings from Leonardo’s surviving notebooks (10 of 18 notebooks have been lost) to imagine Leonardo in the world.

For example, consider the place of Leonardo’s birth — Vinci.  It was a two-day trek over a mountain to the city of Florence.  Imagine living with something so glorious just beyond the horizon.  His home on a hill gave out on “a bird’s eye view of the countryside that was panoramic.”  Imagine how this perspective fueled Leonardo’s thoughts about flight and his mapping skills.  Life during the time of Leonardo was chaotic, swept by plagues and warring factions, full of death.  Lankford says, “One key to understanding Leonardo is to see the brutal chaos he came out of, the chaos he tried to separate himself from, the noise on every side.  It was not an easy place to think a straight thought.”

Lankford asks us to consider what it would have been like to live without photographic images or pictures of people we see on TV and computer screens.  During Renaissance times, even mirrors were rare, and people seldom saw their own faces. Then imagine Leonardo’s seemingly magical talent to draw images accurately on paper:

“. . . the rarity of representational art in their lives meant that it had a stronger impact on the viewer than it has today . . . the important thing to consider is the enormous power Leonardo had to convince others simply because he could draw so well.”

“In an age before images were a common thing, Leonardo was the artist/magician who plucked living objects out of thin air.  To the average person it was as if his thinking was more real than everybody else’s.  Certainly more concrete and vivid.  And surely more convincing as well.”

I enjoyed reading about the power of Leonardo’s drawings, especially since I am currently embarked on my own project of doing pen and ink sketches for a month or two while I take a break from painting in color.  Like Leonardo, I appreciate the act of drawing as a way to see things more deeply.  I really haven’t seen a thing until I try to draw it, and then I notice its nuances and how difficult it is to translate what I see onto paper.

I am also a person who thinks better with a pen in my hand.  So I was particularly interested in Lankford’s descriptions about the importance of the notebooks to Leonardo’s creativity and inventiveness.  Leonardo was a genius at coming up with ideas, but he often did not actually make many of his inventions and he left many art and engineering works unfinished.  He captured many of these ideas in his notebooks.  Of the notebooks, Lankford says:  “. . . that’s what originality looks like.  It’s scattered, not entirely coherent, full of holes and gaps and repetitions, even founded on false assumptions, but also containing great insights that penetrate into the nature of the world.”

Lankford says, “It seems to me his notebooks served many functions, from open lab books where the apprentices were encouraged to read, to draft books of ideas he wanted to consider, or ideas for letters, to (at their most personal) his memory books.  If he saw some machine or mechanism he wanted to understand and remember, or some gesture or look in an eye, or a pattern in a lady’s lace or the curl of a finger, anything he wanted to know and examine, he would copy.  I think this is the essence of Leonardo as autodidact: constantly looking, constantly observing, noting, guessing, recording — all for later when he could peruse these thoughts more thoroughly and without distraction.”

“Leonardo’s reputation for invention is actually more the business of a squirrel saving up its nuts until they’re needed.  That was his bottom-most process: follow your inspiration of the moment and then archive the result for later when it can be useful.  Inspiration must be caught while present.”

It seems that Leonardo was exceptionally attuned to catching those flickers of ideas and did not just let them slip by unmarked to die.  He may not have brought all or even most of his ideas to fruition, but he did jot them down and develop them as concepts that seemed like they could work.

Becoming Leonardo is a fairly comprehensive biography, but I was less interested in his roles as engineer for the warring royalty than in his role as painter.  He was not that prolific, but the paintings he did finish were remarkable — the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper,  the Lady with an Ermine.  I was amazed that he worked on some of these paintings for years.  And that they were not painted until he was in his 40s, 50s and 60s. His multi-faceted genius was coupled with a curiosity that kept him learning and growing into old age.  I admire him for that.