Treatise on Painting by Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci was born in 1452 at Anchiano, near Vinci, in Tuscany, the son of a Florentine notary. Trained in the workshop of Andrea Verrocchio, he became one of the greatest and most versatile artists of the Renaissance. Indeed, he must be considered one of the master-minds of all times, for there was scarcely a sphere of human knowledge in which he did not excel and surpass his contemporaries. He was not only preeminent as painter, sculptor, and architect, but was an accomplished musician, poet, and improvisatore, an engineer—able to construct canals, roads, fortifications, ships, and war-engines of every description—an inventor of rare musical instruments, and a great organiser of fêtes and pageants. Few of his artistic creations have come down to us; but his profound knowledge of art and science, and the wide range of his intellect are fully revealed in the scattered leaves of his notebooks, which are now preserved in the British Museum, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Ambrosiani in Milan, and other collections. The first edition of the "Treatise on Painting" was a compilation from these original notes, published at Paris in 1651. Leonardo died at Cloux on May 2, 1519.

From Da Vinci's Notebooks

The eye, which is called the window of the soul, is the principal means whereby our intelligence may most fully and splendidly comprehend the infinite works of nature; and the ear comes next, by gaining importance through hearing the things that have been perceived by the eye. If you historians or poets, or mathematicians, had not seen things with your eyes, badly would you describe them in your writings. If you, O poet, call painting dumb poetry, the painter might say of the poet's writing blind painting. Now consider, which taunt is more mordant—to be called blind or dumb?

If the poet is as free in invention as the painter, yet his fiction is not as satisfying to mankind as is painting, for whereas poetry endeavours with words to represent forms, actions, and scenes, the painter's business is to imitate forms with the images of these very forms. Take the case of a poet, describing the beauties of a woman to her lover, and that of a painter depicting her; you will soon see whither nature will attract the enamoured judge. And should not the proof of things be the verdict of experience?

If you say that poetry is more enduring, I may reply that the works of a coppersmith are more enduring still, since time has preserved them longer than your works or ours; yet they are less imaginative, and painting, if done with enamels on copper, can be made far more enduring. We, in our art, may be said to be grandsons unto God. If you despise painting, which is the sole imitator of all the visible works of nature, then you certainly despise a subtle invention which, with philosophical and ingenious reflection, considers all the properties of forms, airs, and scenes, trees, animals, grasses and flowers, which are surrounded by light and shade.

And this is a science and the true-born daughter of nature, since painting is born of this self-same nature. But, in order to speak more correctly, let us call it the grandchild of nature, because all visible things are produced by nature, and from these same things is born painting. Wherefore we may rightly call it the grandchild of nature, related to God Himself.

How Sculpture is Less Intellectual

Being sculptor no less than painter, and practising both arts in the same degree, it seems to me that I may without arrogance pronounce how one of them is more intellectual, difficult, and perfect than the other.

Firstly, sculpture is subject to a certain light—namely, from above—and painting carries everywhere with it light and shade. Light and shade are, therefore, the essentials in sculpture. In this respect the sculptor is aided by the nature of the relief, which produces these of its own accord; the painter introduces them by his art where nature would reasonably place them. The sculptor cannot reproduce the varying nature of the colours of objects; painting lacks nothing in this respect. The sculptor's perspectives never seem true, but the painter's lead the eye hundreds of miles into the work. Aerial perspective is alien to their work. They can neither represent transparent nor luminous bodies, neither reflected rays nor shiny surfaces like mirrors and similar glittering bodies; no mist, no dull sky, nor countless other things, which I refrain from mentioning to avoid getting wearisome. It has the advantage that it offers greater resistance to time, although enamels on copper fused in fire have equal power of resistance. Thus painting surpasses sculpture even in durability.

Were you to speak only of painting on panels, I should be content to give the verdict against sculpture by saying: Whilst painting is more beautiful, more imaginative, and more resourceful, sculpture is more durable; and this is all that can be said for it. It reveals with little effort what it is. Painting seems a miraculous thing, making things intangible appear tangible, presenting flat objects in relief, and distant near at hand. Indeed, painting is adorned with endless possibilities that are not used by sculpture.

Painters fight and compete with nature.

Of the Ten Offices of the Eye

Painting extends over all the ten offices of the eye—namely, darkness, light, body and colour, figure and scenery, distance and nearness, movement and repose—all of which offices will be woven through this little work of mine. For I will remind the painter by what rule and in what manner he shall use his art to imitate all these things, the work of nature and the ornament of the world.

Rule for Beginners in Painting

We know clearly that sight is one of the swiftest actions in existence, perceiving in one moment countless forms. Nevertheless, it cannot comprehend more than one thing at a time. Suppose, for instance, you, reader, were to cast a single glance upon this entire written page and were to decide at once that it is full of different letters; but you will not be able to recognize in this space of time either what letters they are or what they purport to say. Therefore, you must take word by word, verse by verse, in order to gain knowledge from these letters. Again, if you want to reach the summit of a building, you must submit to climbing step by step, else it would be impossible for you to reach the top. And so I say to you, whom nature inclines to this art, if you would have a true knowledge of the form of things, begin with their details, and don't pass on to the second before the first is well fixed in your memory, else you will waste your time.

Perspective is the rein and rudder of painting.

I say whatever is forced within a border is more difficult than what is free. Shadows have in certain degrees their borders, and he who ignores them cannot obtain roundness, which roundness is the essence and soul of painting. Drawing is free, since, if you see countless faces, they will all be different—the one has a long, the other a short nose. Thus the painter may take this liberty, and where is liberty, is no rule.

Precepts for Painting

The painter should endeavour to be universal, because he is lacking in dignity if he do one thing well and another thing badly, like so many who only study the well-proportionate nude and not its variations, because a man may be proportionate and yet be short and stout, or long and thin. And he who does not bear in mind these variations will get his figures stereotyped, so that they all seem to be brothers and sisters, which deserves to be censured severely.

Let the sketching of histories be swift and the articulation not too perfect. Be satisfied with suggesting the position of the limbs, which you may afterwards carry to completion at your leisure and as you please.

Methinks it is no small grace in a painter if he give a pleasing air to his figures, a grace which, if it be not one's own by nature, may be acquired by study, as follows. Try to take the best parts from many beautiful faces, whose beauty is affirmed by public fame rather than by your own judgment, for you may deceive yourself by taking faces which resemble your own. For it would often seem that such similarities please us; and if you were ugly you would not select beautiful faces, and you would make ugly ones, like many painters whose types often resemble their master. Therefore, take beautiful features, as I tell you, and commit them to your memory.

Monstrous is he who has a very large head and short legs, and monstrous he who with rich garments has great poverty; therefore we shall call him well proportioned whose every part corresponds with his whole.

On the Choice of Light

If you had a courtyard, which you could cover at will with a canvas awning, this light would be good; or when you wish to paint somebody, paint him in bad weather, or at the hour of dusk, placing the sitter with his back to one of the walls of this courtyard.

Observe in the streets at the fall of the evening the faces of men and women when it is bad weather, what grace and sweetness then appear to be theirs.

Therefore, you should have a courtyard, prepared with walls painted in black, and with the roof projecting a little over the said wall. And it should be ten braccia [ten fathoms] in width, and twenty in length and ten in height; and when the sun shines you should cover it over with the awning, or you should paint an hour before evening, when it is cloudy or misty. For this is the most perfect light.

Of the Gesture of Figures

You should give your figures such movement as will suffice to show what is passing in the mind of the figure; else your art would not be praiseworthy. A figure is not worthy of praise if it do not express by some gesture the passion of the soul. That figure is most worthy of praise which best expresses by its gesture the passion of its nature.

If you have to represent an honest man talking, see that his action be companion to his good words; and again, if you have to depict a bestial man, give him wild movements—his arms thrown towards the spectator, and his head pressed towards his chest, his legs apart.

The Judgment of Painting

We know well that mistakes are more easily detected in the works of others than in one's own, and often, while censuring the small faults of others, you do not recognise your own great faults. In order to escape such ignorance, have a care that you be, above all, sure of your perspective; then acquire full knowledge of the proportions of man and other animals. And, moreover, be a good architect; that is, in so far as it is necessary for the form of the buildings and other things that are upon the earth, and that are infinitely varied in form.

The more knowledge you have of these, the more worthy of praise will be your work. And for those things in which you have no practice, do not disdain to copy from nature. When you are painting, you should take a flat mirror and often look at your work within it. It will be seen in reverse, and will appear to be by some other master, and you will be better able to judge of its faults than in any other way. It is also a good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation, for then, when you come back to the work, your judgment will be surer, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose the power of judgment.

Surely, while one paints one should not reject any man's judgment; for we know very well that a man, even if he be no painter, has knowledge of the forms of another man, and will judge aright whether he is hump-backed, or has one shoulder too high or too low, or whether he has too large a mouth or nose, or other faults; and if we are able rightly to judge the work of nature in men, how much more is it fit to admit that they are able to judge our mistakes.

You know how much man may be deceived about his own works, and if you do not know it of yourself, observe it in others, and you will derive benefit from other people's mistakes. Therefore, you should be eager to listen patiently to the views of other men and consider and reflect carefully whether he who finds fault is right or not in blaming you. If you find that he is right, correct your work; but if not, pretend not to have understood him; or show him, if he be a man whom you respect, by sound argument, why it is that he is mistaken in finding fault.

Do Not Disdain to Work from Nature

A master who let it be understood that his mind could retain all the forms and effects of nature, I should certainly hold to be endowed with great ignorance, since the said effects are infinite, and our memory is not of such capacity as to suffice thereto. Therefore, O painter, see that the greed for gain do not outweigh within you the honour of art, for to gain in honour is a far greater thing than to be honoured for wealth.

For these and other reasons that might be adduced, you should endeavour first to demonstrate to the eye, by means of drawing, a suggestion of the intention and of the invention originated first by your imagination. Then proceed, taking from it or adding to it, until you are satisfied with it. Then have men arranged as models, draped or nude, in the manner in which they are disposed in your work, and make the proportions and size in accordance with perspective, so that no part of the work remains that is not counselled by reason as well as by nature.

And this will be the way to make you honoured through your art. First of all, copy drawings by a good master made by his art from nature, and not as exercises; then from a relief, keeping by you a drawing done from the same relief; then from a good model, and of this you ought to make a general practice.

Of the Painter's Life in His Study

The painter or draughtsman should be solitary, so that physical comfort may not injure the thriving of the mind, especially when he is occupied with the observations and considerations which ever offer themselves to his eye and provide material to be treasured up by the memory. If you are alone, you belong wholly to yourself; and if you are accompanied even by one companion, you belong only half to yourself; and if you are with several of them, you will be even more subject to such inconveniences.

And if you should say, "I shall take my own course, I shall keep apart, so that I may be the better able to contemplate the forms of natural objects," then I reply, this cannot well be, because you cannot help frequently lending your ear to their gossip; and since nobody can serve two masters at once, you will badly fulfil your duties as companion, and you will have worse success in artistic contemplation. And if you should say, "I shall keep so far apart that their words cannot reach me or disturb me," then I reply in this case that you will be looked upon as mad. And do you not perceive that, in acting thus, you would really be solitary?

Of Ways to Represent Various Scenes

A man in despair you should make turning his knife against himself. He should have rent his garments, and he should be in the act of tearing open his wound with one hand. And you should make him with his feet apart and his legs somewhat bent, and the whole figure likewise bending to the ground, with dishevelled and untidy hair.

As a rule, he whom you wish to represent talking to many people will consider the subject of which he has to treat, and will fit his gestures to this subject—that is to say, if the subject is persuasion, the gestures should serve this intention; if the subject is explanation by various reasons, he who speaks should take a finger of his left hand between two fingers of his right, keeping the two smaller ones pressed together; his face should be animated and turned towards the people, his mouth slightly opened, so that he seems to be talking. And if he is seated, let him seem to be in the act of slightly raising himself, with his head forward; and if he is standing, make him lean forward a little, with his head towards the people, whom you should represent silent and attentive, all watching, with gestures of admiration, the orator's face. Some old men should have their mouths drawn down at the corners in astonishment at what they hear, drawing back the cheeks in many furrows, and raising their eyebrows where they meet, so as to produce many wrinkles on their foreheads. Some who are seated should hold their tired knees between the interlaced fingers of their hands, and others should cross one knee over the other, and place upon it one hand, so that its hollow supports the other elbow, whose hand again supports the bearded chin.

Whatever is wholly deprived of light is complete darkness. Night being in this condition, if you wish to represent a scene therein, you must contrive to have a great fire in this night, and everything that is in closer proximity to this fire will assume more of its colour, because the nearer a thing is to another object, the more it partakes of its nature. And since you will make the fire incline towards a red colour, you will have to give a reddish tinge to all things lighted by it, and those which are farther away from the fire will have to hold more of the black colour of night. The figures which are between you and the fire appear dark against the brightness of the flame, for that part of the object which you perceive is coloured by the darkness of night, and not by the brightness of the fire; and those which flank the fire will be half dark and half reddish. Those which are behind the flames will be altogether illuminated by a reddish light against the black background.

If you wish to represent a tempest properly, observe and set down the effects of the wind blowing over the face of the sea and of the land, raising and carrying away everything that is not firmly rooted in the general mass. And in order properly to represent this tempest, you should first of all show the riven and torn clouds swept along by the wind, together with the sandy dust blown up from the seashore, and with branches and leaves caught up and scattered through the air, together with many other light objects, by the power of the furious wind. The trees and shrubs, bent to the ground, seem to desire to follow the direction of the wind, with branches twisted out of their natural growth, and their foliage tossed and inverted.

Of the men who are present, some who are thrown down and entangled with their garments and covered with dust should be almost unrecognisable; and those who are left standing may be behind some tree which they embrace, so that the storm should not carry them off. Others, bent down, their garments and hair streaming in the wind, should hold their hands before their eyes because of the dust.

Let the turbulent and tempestuous sea be covered with eddying foam between the rising waves, and let the wind carry fine spray into the stormy air to resemble a thick and all-enveloping mist. Of the ships that are there, show some with rent sails, whose shreds should flap in the air, together with some broken halyards; masts splintered, tumbled, with the ship itself broken by the fury of the waves; some human beings, shrieking, and clinging to the wreckage of the vessel. You should show the clouds, chased by the impetuous wind, hurled against the high tops of the mountains, wreathing and eddying like waves that beat against the cliffs. The air should strike terror through the murky darkness caused by the dust, the mist, and the heavy clouds.

To Learn to Work from Memory

If you want properly to commit to your memory something that you have learnt, proceed in this manner—namely, when you have drawn one object so often that you believe you can remember it, try to draw it without the model, after having traced your model on a thin sheet of glass. This glass you will then lay upon the drawing which you have made without model. Observe well where the tracing does not tally with your drawing, and wherever you find that you have gone wrong, you must remember not to go wrong again. You should even return to the model, in order again to draw the wrong passage until it shall be fixed in your memory. And if you have no level sheet of glass for tracing, take a very thin sheet of goat-parchment, well oiled, and then dried. And after the tracing has done service for your drawing, you can efface it with a sponge and use it again for another tracing.

On Studying in Bed

I have experienced upon myself that it is of no small benefit if, when you are in bed, you apply your imagination to repeating the superficial lines of the forms which you have been studying, or to other remarkable things which are comprehensible to a fine intellect. This is a praiseworthy and useful action which will help you to fix things in your memory.