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The Molten Mind Space

Drawing as enquiry and development of ideas

By studying the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci, it is possible to get an insight into the methods of practice and techniques he used.

Use of drawing

Almost all artists use on the spot drawings as a basis for a final painting or print. This method has been used throughout history as a means of experimenting with how lines, tones and colours effect a composition. This can be a continuous process in a sketchbook in order to solve difficult and intricate problems, or one or two drawings looking at certain aspects for a painting. By studying the drawings of famous artists, it is possible to get an insight into methods of practice they used and a better understanding of techniques.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) used many different media in his drawings from metalpoint to red chalk and charcoal as well as pen and ink and watercolour. He produced many sketches in preparation for larger paintings testing composition and postures, but many of his sketches were executed for the sake of research, especially his anatomical drawings. This aspect of drawing is something I find particularly useful.

He had a sheer pleasure of drawing and a unique “graphic” imagination, shown in many of his freer studies. By short, quick, energetic strokes of the pen many of his drawings have a very lively and an almost whimsical quality to them; especially his pages of studies of animals, for example – “Cats, a Dragon and other animals,” made during the latter part of his life.


In the time of the Renaissance in Italy, to be an artist was considered a trade, and so, the young Leonardo was apprenticed to a notable artist, while still young, and entered the San Luca guild of painters in Florence soon after.

The developing philosophy and science, of that time, meant that artists were inspired by new ideas, and drawing became a means of investigating and experimenting with these. The Renaissance was therefore the first great age in art history in which drawing was appreciated for its experimental role.


Da Vinci also made studies from nature. His drawing, “Arno Landscape” (1473), one of his earliest extant dated work, was also:

“One of the earliest autonomous landscape sketches in art history…bears witness to the increasing importance of studies from nature in the 15th century.” (Zollner, 2006)

The drawing was executed first in pencil on the spot (as there are traces of partially erased pencil behind the ink overlay.) The view depicted shows a valley with hills on either side and is believed to be the path leading from Vinci to Pistoia, with the fortifications of Papiano on the left of the picture. Drawings such as these served as backgrounds for many of Leonardo’s paintings so can be seen preparatory sketches.

Arno landscape

This picture particularly reminds me of a Japanese painting as the background fades in the distance to the misty hills. Even the composition reminds me of works by Tensho Shubun. Also, the notations at the top of the drawing (“on the day of St. Maria of the snow miracle 5 August 1473”), in Leonardo’s fantastic mirror writing, are reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy often employed in such paintings.

Leonardo also made topographical drawings for Cesare Borgia’s military campaigns such as “Birds-eye view of a landscape” (1502) a pen ink and watercolour study. Here his skill as a draughtsman is clearly prominent. This shows that the importance of the landscape was being recognised in an official capacity, even if it was not, at this point, seen as an object for a single painting.

Character models

Whilst Leonardo was still an apprentice to Verrocchio he drew the picture of the “Ancient Warrior.” This conforms to a type of model favoured by his teacher. However, this drawing clearly illustrates the young Leonardo’s talent as a draughtsman.

The picture is done in metalpoint. The detail and ornamentations are meticulously worked and the shading around the face seems to herald the artist’s developing sfumato technique. Yet the lines – especially the contours of the face are remarkably well defined and strong, denoting something of the character of the model. The lion’s crest on the front of the warrior’s breastplate also reflects the fierce expression; the fact that the face is in profile serves to heighten this.

ancient warrior

Leonardo did many drawings of faces, specifically so in preparation for his painting “the Last Supper”. He carried out extensive physiognomic studies to achieve the greatest variety of looks for the disciple’s heads. He experimented with capturing the expressions on people’s faces and roamed the streets using the ordinary townsfolk as his models. He even drew people in hospital (possibly as captive models) and even examined corpses to learn about the muscles and bones in people. He made numerous sketches and compositional studies for paintings and carried out very lengthy processes to get his paintings just right.


“Studies of the shoulder and neck” is a page of anatomical studies which mainly highlights the muscular structure. The man in the drawing also appears quite skeletal and the rib bones can be clearly seen. The individual areas of the drawing that are more closely worked are extremely well executed and the areas left less finished are annotated with letters and notes.

The sketches are done in pen and ink. There is a great fluidity of line especially curving round the head of the man and in each hollow of muscle the shadows are achieved by hatching. The tones vary greatly, and the construction of the bones is also looked at in detail.

Precise representations of anatomical elements were somewhat restricted due to lack of knowledge available at that time. In some of his other anatomical drawings internal organs were based on those of animals, perhaps because those elements of the corpses he was studying were not there. When Leonardo became less active as a painter, later in his life, he devoted most of his time to these studies.

Studies of the shoulder and neck

Study as art practice

By looking at drawings from the beginning and end of this great artist’s life, I can see that there was a progression towards study for its own sake and in its own right, and that there was little change in the perfection and attention to detail that he practiced. Drawing for the sake of study can turn a cat into a dragon, or a corpse into the perfect man (as in Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man) and is the ultimate end for which art (as a practice) should strive for. Research is a life-long pursuit.

Zollner, F (2006) Leonardo Taschen



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