Imagine sketching and making over 13,000 drawings and notes in the course of your lifetime! Leonardo did. He is undoubtedly the godfather of sketching. Anyone serious about developing a sketching habit should take a look at his sketchbooks for inspiration.

Before I proceed I have recently just finished reading one of the best biographies I’ve read about him written by Walter Isaacson. Isaacson brings him to life by de-mystifying the legend in a respectful and extraordinary way.  Understanding the very human man that was Leonardo enhances our sense of purpose when keeping a sketchbook!  Leonardo is more relevant today than ever!

Underpinning all of Leonardo’s drawings is an insatiable desire to understand, interpret and then apply what he was seeing onto a blank page. He was so much more than simply a doodler or sketchbooker.  He achieved what very few can.  He possessed the ability to fuse mathematics, science and engineering together within the pages of his sketchbook. As a result he gave new meaning to the importance of art in the process.

Here is what I think a sketchbooker can learn from him;

  1. Your sketchbook is a work in progress! Be more magpie!! Leonardo was a well known creative procrastinator. He would start ideas and not quite get round to finishing them before a better idea came along.  He was a magpie enticed by a wave of ideas as they came and went.  His early career is littered with unfinished works that, nevertheless, promised his potential to come. (Adoration of the Magi intended for the chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria was abandoned a few months after he got started.) He was notorious for starting a sketch and returning to it years later to touch it up or, even better, sketch something new alongside it. Sketches need never be finished, don’t carry a time limit and can be returned to time and again.
  2. Curiosity! Be a generalist. Leonardo was insatiably curious about everything. He deconstructed everything on paper whether it was human bodies, wild flowers, maps, battalions of men, castles and buildings, sketches of landscapes in the shape of maps and portraits, or medieval and imaginary machines. Can we say the same for how curious we are as artists about the world around us? I am a firm believer that it is this curiosity that drives solutions to problems. And in Leonardo’s case hindsight is a wonderful thing. So many of his initial sketches form the foundation of modern day solutions today. I always get stressed about being too random in my sketchbooks. We have been raised in a western culture to value productivity with a purpose and unfortunately (or fortunately) the sketchbook is far removed from this premise! Perhaps this is why I value it so much. Leonardo’s curiosity and generalist vibe highlights how a sketchbook can become a mini bible of the world around you. Which leads neatly onto my next point.
  3. Study the world around you!  But take it a step further. Leonardo studied anatomy. He stripped the human body of its façade and dove deep to understand how muscles move. Take a look at another of his unfinished works of St Jerome in the Wilderness where he connects the movement of the hermit’s body with his clear inner turmoil. Understanding how the body’s muscles respond under what emotional condition that human being is enduring is captured across a range of Leonardo’s paintings and sketches.  He revolutionised the renaissance approach to painting. He was even obsessive about drapery across his sketchbooks and the clothes his subjects wore, repeating sketches in order to capture the precise fall of light and shadow across a subject.
  4. Practise, Practise, Practise. Capture what you can when you can. Do you carry your sketchbook with you wherever you go? Leonardo was unashamed of sketching the same thing over and over again in order to get a technique right. He would even strike through a page of sketches or writing if he wasn’t happy with it.  His sketchbooks became a type of journal with his thought processes jotted down alongside his work.  It was far from perfect but it contributed to a powerful process as an artist.
  5. Use your imagination. I am constantly struck looking through Leonardo’s work about his sense of humour and love of the theatrical and fantastical. Perhaps his time spent at the court of Ludovico Sforza as the producer of pageants for the city of Milan contributed to his love of the fantastical. His sketches of grotesque old men with gurning faces dressed in elaborate feminine clothes and mythical monsters must have held an artistic and technical space and place. They held a very important role. Leonardo was tasked with producing splendid festivities for the people of Milan and, therefore, securing the rule of the Sforza family.  His theatrical imaginings made their way out of his sketches and into reality where before long he employed a raft of trades from poets to actors, architects to engineers to realise his productions. I like to think of him as an early illustrator.  So don’t hesitate to employ the fantastical and mythical in your sketchbooks. Sometimes straying from reality can be a good thing!

And finally, a word must be said about how human this historic patriarch was. Walter Isaacson in his biography cites how Leonardo quoted in his notebook “The good painter has to paint two principal things, man and the intention of his mind. The first is easy and the second is difficult because the latter has to be represented through gestures and movements of the limbs.” (p88) His notebooks from 1480 are filled with gloom with his state of affairs. One of his expressions of despair read “While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.” He was a genius but not yet recognised as one publicly.

There is comfort knowing that the man struggled with his own demons like the rest of us!