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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Learning from Artists Series 1: Da Vinci


While brainstorming for an upcoming keynote on Creativity, I started thinking about the artists whose lives I have studied a bit (as a former World History teacher) and what we could learn from them – not particularly from their oeuvres, but from their creative process and the way they lived. At first I set out to make one comprehensive post, but then recoiled, thinking it would be too overwhelming. So, this will be a blog series of sorts, highlighting one artist per post. 

LEONARDO DA VINCI (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519,)

Lesson 1: Rise Above Your Roots

Leonardo was born out of wedlock (read “bastard”) – and back in Renaissance times, that wasn’t such a great thing. He wasn’t even eligible to have proper schooling. And yet, he ended up living under the auspices of the King of France (Francis I), who, it is said, held his head in his arms as he died. I have to imagine this background made him rather resilient – and able to think out of the box. He had to prove himself through his talent, not rest on the laurels of his bloodline. Moreover, he held “book learning” lightly, and believed true knowledge came from observation (i.e. empiricism, or “inquiry-based” learning). He once quipped: “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” 

We can all learn from this. Refrain from blaming parents, environments, personal history, or circumstances. Seek out opportunities and then work hard to show you are worth it.

My takeaway:  MOVE ON..AND UP

Lesson 2: Don’t Feed the Trolls

Austin Kleon, in his recent book Show Your Work, mentions this. In fact, I was inspired to do this sketchnote:


Of course Leonardo did not face cyberbullying, but something quite akin to it (la plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose )… they had this thing in Renaissance Florence called tamburagione – a box where anonymous accusations (mostly referring to sodomy) could be dropped, sparking an arrest by the “Officers of the Night”. While in his 20’s as his career was budding, Leonardo was himself accused of homosexual relations with a male prostitute – a crime punishable by death. As luck would have it (some think it is because one of the fellow accused was a Medici), the charges were dropped, but Da Vinci scholars have speculated that the artist never forgot this brush with sudden demise, and how important and fragile a reputation can be

We see this all the time in our modern hyper-public media. One disgraceful tweet,  unsavory photo, controversial off-the-cuff comment, or scandalous video (do they even call them “sex tapes” anymore?) can cause even the brightest stars to fall. And that is only what we do to ourselves…what about the trolls? Many succumb to the haranguing of disgruntled fans or malevolent (often anonymous) individuals who seek to tear us down.



Lesson 3: Schmooze or Lose

It is said that Leonardo was especially beautiful and charming (besides a beauty of body never sufficiently extolled, there was an infinite grace in all his actions” says biographer Vasari ). Unlike his abstemious counterpart Michelangelo, Da Vinci knew how to work it – how to charm and woo.  He schmoozed and secured commissions from the most influential men of his day – Lorenzo de Medici, Ludovico Sforza, and  (insert dramatic music)…the infamous Cesare Borgia. 

I think this is an important , yet sometimes underrated quality. I mean, we don’t really do “Charm Schools” anymore, but teaching the social niceties, or even “netiquette” should be a consideration. Moreover, NETWORKING is key. We need to make an effort to develop our Personal Learning Network (PLN) and that of our students. When you’re hooked up with the right people (I like to call them creative “soulmates”), ideas can grow and morph into something more beautiful and elaborate.



Lesson 4: Make Thinking Visible

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are probably aware that Da Vinci kept extensive diaries and notebooks. The printing press was around, but he constructed them by hand. They were by no means consistent – all sizes of paper and everything from sketches of faces he ran into on the street to shopping lists. he never published them, because, I think, they were all about process. It’s like his mind exploded onto the pages. Check out some of his jotted notes here . Bill Gates even spent over $30  million for one of them because “It’s an inspiration that one person–off on their own, with no feedback, without being told what was right or wrong–that he kept pushing himself,”

This kind of “life-long learning”- a constant, intrinsic motivation to know more and keep track of one’s experiences and queries, as well as make sense of it all, is the hallmark of great thinkers. A great blog post on these “memory warehouses” by Brainpickings highlights a few sketchbooks from more modern creative icons. I love what Spanish illustrator Pablo Amargo has figured out:

“I like to work on two sketchbooks at the same time. One is for work, with lots of little drawings, ideas for postcards and books. The second one is for pleasure, with collages, my thoughts, people I admire, quotes from books, news and film reviews, that sort of thing”

My friend Brad Ovenell-Carter does the same, with a log book and more of an idea book.  Author Austin Kleon keeps a book-tour diary, among other notebooks, which he calls “shitholes where I go to dump my brains out, say things I wouldn’t even say out loud to my wife, places to find what I’m looking for, find out what I know”…

I have dabbled in coming up with a solution to “showing my mind in messy motion”, as Kleon says. Here’s a general page from a LINELESS composition notebook:


I then started playing with my favourite app Paper by 53 and created a “Peek Week”


…of stuff to do, finish, work on…(including a “Pie in the Sky”)

to do

And while there is a certain nostalgic elegance to the Moleskin, there are iPhone apps, like Kennedy  which offer a similar “life-blogging” interface.

Whatever we choose, notebooks and sketchbooks are a lovely, effective way of archiving and working out our complex, sometimes overwhelming thoughts. You should always keep one by your bed and in the car (How many times have I thought of something great and had to jot it on a crumpled receipt in my purse? How many times have I had an amazing idea at 3 am and have blanked out in the morning?).


I could say so much more about what we can learn from the great Da Vinci, but I did want to leave each one of these posts with a word of warning. No one is perfect, and each one of the artists I’ll discuss has their own set of peculiar faults. Here is the warning we should take from Leonardo’s life and practice:


Let People Down

Da Vinci might have been a perfectionist, or a dreamer, or so brilliant he felt he didn’t need to finish things because he had already seen him finished in his mind. And yet he was hired to do work – real work for other people counting on him – and he often failed to follow through until completion. I don’t admire that habit in anyone, and I certainly try not to fall into that myself. At the risk of sounding cliché If you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk.

I’d like to leave this post with a quote from the artist himself:

“Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else”

#BradOvenellCarter #series #austinkleon #brainpickings #resilience #leonardo #creativity #davinci #showyourwork #artist #lessons

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