7 Lessons For Writers From Leonardo Da Vinci

One of the reasons I moved back to London from Australia was the density of cultural treasures in this area of the world.

My muse is European and I find my inspiration in art, architecture and culture. They feature heavily in my novels Pentecost and Prophecy.

London’s National Gallery is currently hosting a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition; Painter at the Court of Milan and last night I went to see it. As I walked around and read his own words, the similarities between visual art and writing became more apparent.

1) Creation of a idealized world.

Leonardo’s finished paintings were often not direct pictures of the real world. They were improvements or allegories or portrayal of myth and story. Our writing is often the same. We take aspects of the world and knit them together to create hyper-reality, or we twist things, enhance aspects or disguise them. From the words of Leonardo himself, “If the painter wishes to see beauties that would enrapture him, he is master of their production; and if he wishes to see monstrous things…he is their Lord and God…in fact, therefore, whatever there is in the Universe through essence, presence or imagination, he has it first in his mind and then in his hands.”

2) Practice is critical.

I found the practice and study sketches to be the most fascinating part of the exhibition. Leonardo studied anatomy in great detail and sketched parts of the body he was trying to perfect for the finished product. The folded hands, the intricate pattern of the skull, the ermine’s paw – all these are sketched for practice and understanding before the finished work is made. In turn, we must practice aspects of the craft – dialogue, character description, setting, point of view. We practice and then later refine our work for the finished product.

3) Character creation

This quote from Leonardo’s diaries caught my eye. “When you make a figure, think well about what it is and what you want it do and see that the work is in keeping with the figure’s aim and character.” In painting as much as in writing, you have to decide what you want, decide on the way the character will be and then create to that description.

The sketch of the man taken in by gypsies contains five individual characters perfectly portrayed (left). The exhibition also has Leonardo’s tiny diaries there where he wrote out ideas for his designs, he often used words instead of images at the first stages of creation.

4) Use of archetypes

The Last Supper is a triumph of archetypes with Judas in particular being dark-skinned, hook-nosed and clutching a bag of money as the racist stereotype of a betrayer. But archetypes appeal to the human mind, we can instantly hang our thoughts on a pre-existing idea and it helps us understand the depths being portrayed. The saints are often pictured with the instruments of their martyrdom, Sebastian with the arrows for example. I love this language of symbolism and try to weave it into my own writing.

5) Multiple drafts

Drafting for the paintings of Leonardo started with the individual sketches and then culminated in a cartoon. The word is used here to describe a technique where a drawing was covered with pinprick size holes and black chalk then used over the surface in order to create a template on the wall or ceiling or wherever the finished piece would go. The gallery featured the Virgin and Child with St Anne pictured right. This is similar to the drafting and editing process all writers go through to create their own masterpieces, with the cartoon as the almost completed final draft before the finished product.

6) Editing

There’s a lovely sketch of a kneeling angel where Leonardo has drawn the hand in two places, the same arm raised and lowered, in an attempt to see what the picture would look like with either option. This is an aspect of pentimento, an alteration where the painter has changed his mind during composition. This reminded me of the editing process where we change our work to improve it, either by something we see ourselves or what others help us with. The editing process is crucial to create a fantastic finished product.

7) Artist-entrepreneur

Leonardo's academy of artists

Leonardo was famous being a creative polymath – a painter, sculptor, engineer, but he was also an entrepreneur. He was paid for his works and if he didn’t get paid, he sold them elsewhere. The 30 year wait for the payment due for the Virgin of the Rocks is a classic example.

He also had a workshop of artists who did the bulk work for him in order, presumably, to produce more work at a faster pace. I see this in the James Patterson model of writing where he is creative director and has co-writers working with him in order to produce almost a novel a month. Patterson has said “If I’m working with a co-writer, they’ll usually write the first draft. And then I write subsequent drafts”. We may criticize his writing but he is one of the highest earning writers in the world and millions buy his books. All artists must consider money in order to survive and then thrive.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy these posts inspired by art:

Do you find art inspiring?


Is The Future Of Print Books Limited Edition Beautiful Art?

Kindle ebook sales have now eclipsed paperback sales at Amazon.com which means the way people consume books has fundamentally changed. Even if you haven’t embraced the ebook revolution yet, you must admit it’s becoming a growing force in publishing.

I have talked before about how my reading habits have changed since I bought my Kindle. Essentially, all my consumption type reading is now on ebooks. By that I mean all fiction and most non-fiction that I will read once and then am unlikely to revisit. I still buy a few print books per year, but maybe one tenth of what I used to.

If you’re interested in the future of print, you will need to inspire buyers with something more than they can get in an ebook i.e. it needs to be more than the content itself.

Cory Doctorow is known as a great digital publisher with Creative Commons licensing who focuses on providing information for free in order to sell his work. So it was interesting to hear him talk about this topic with Mur Lafferty on the fantastic I Should Be Writing podcast. In the interview, Cory talks about producing limited edition physical books that cannot be replicated. They would be hand-tooled, made of materials that are individual and not mass market.  The words themselves would be the same as those on an ebook but the physical book would be a work of art and a collector’s item for hardcore fans. The author would be able to make a profit by self-publishing a limited number of these and pricing them highly. Cory also spoke of this gorgeous artist’s collective where he was going to work with the physical materials himself. It sounded like an idyllic creative haven in London and it sparked romantic notions in me to learn book-binding and create my own art forms.

Here are some of the other physical books that have inspired me lately.

The Red Book – Carl Jung. I am a huge psychology nerd and Jung has always been a specific interest. The Red Book is his personal diary of writing and paintings from a breakdown he went through between 1914 – 1930. It was only published in 2009 after being kept secret by his family for years. I bought the over-sized full reproduction of the book which I also featured prominently in my thriller, Pentecost. You can see it right with a small book for contrast. It is full of gorgeous reproductions of the paintings and calligraphy from Jung’s hand. The text isn’t particularly inspiring for general reading but the physical book is a masterpiece.

Tree of Codes. Jonathan Safran Foer took a book he loved, “The Street of Crocodiles” by Bruno Schulz and cut it up to make another story by removing specific pieces of the text with die-cutting. Check out the video below. It’s a brilliant idea but definitely more art than book.

For biblioholics who want more, here are 10 visual artists who make art with books.

Do you buy limited edition print books? What are your thoughts about the future of print?

Image: Flickr CC Broniart