Virgin and Child with St. Anne by da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci's "Virgin and Child with St. Anne", circa 1508.

Studying a Renaissance Master: Leonardo da Vinci

Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, is best known for his enigmatic Mona Lisa. 

However, Da Vinci's detailed notebooks show an inquiring mind with keen observations and hypotheses in science and technology, in invention and anatomy that were proven accurate centuries later.

Leonardo Da Vinci was definitely process oriented. For example, "Virgin with Child and St. Anne", the preparatory sketch I used for my study of Da Vinci's work, was left unfinished as were many other of his works of art. He must have felt there was not enough time to investigate everything that interested him. 

His art sketchbooks demonstrate Da Vinci's need to understand all elements of his final painting. His preparatory sketches, some of them full-sized, are detailed studies of light on curved surfaces, hand gestures, facial expressions, and group arrangements.

When Da Vinci died at the age of 67, he left the world 20,000 pages of notebooks and drawings.

First sketch da Vinci style
First attempt: Materials used: Conté de Paris, Sanguine, charcoal, acrylic ink, oil pastels

First attempt

In this sketch, as in the first painting for this year-long class, I was playing with Da Vinci's style. I wanted to give it my own signature in some way. 

Leonardo's sketchbooks reveal that many of his works are soft and smoky.  Mine was not.

Also, his sketches are completed with slow gradations and this once also failed to meet that requirement. The oil pastels were grainy on this paper and I had trouble smoothing them out for the transitions in values.

Although I like the downcast look of the Virgin's face, the finished product is not close enough to Da Vinci's for me to be happy with it.


Final Sketch da Vinci style
Second attempt: charcoal, acrylic ink, Conté de Paris, Sanguine

Final sketch

This last sketch is more in keeping with Leonardo's technique. Rather than starting with a wash as in the first sketch, I began the sketch of the Virgin in dark charcoal, smudging here and there to achieve the smoky, hazy kind of look.

Next, I added a wash of watered down sepia in acrylic ink.

Finally, I used white charcoal and Conté de Paris Sanguine to finish the sketch.  I kept reworking the details that disappeared  with smudging. As a last step, I added touches of diluted yellow acrylic ink in the strands of hair.

What did I learn from studying Leonardo da Vinci's work?

In a nutshell, keeping the sketch simple is best. And the process is just as important, or perhaps more important, than the final product.


2 Responses

  • Hi Louise
    The one thing I finding after only painting for less than two years with watercolour is DEFINITELY do not overwork the colours, still trying the process that! ?

    • Been there and done that, Sally. I know now that applying light touches of watercolours in layers works best. Walking away while the paint dries works well too. I haven’t painted with watercolours in some time and I must get back to them soon. So relaxing! Thanks for commenting.

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