The United Kingdom has been spoiled for all things Leonardo da Vinci this year.
The genius inventor and painter died 500 years ago, in 1519. To celebrate, we had the ‘Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing’ exhibition. 200 drawings from the Queen’s collection went on display around the country. The British Library are hosting the ‘Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion‘ exhibition until 8 September 2019.
We often think of da Vinci as an artist. Or an inventor. And we know about his many notebooks. But we don’t always think of him as a writer.
Still, he’s an inspiration to writers. Here are five lessons you can learn from da Vinci and the way he approached his work. And I’m a huge fan of the journaling. So, I’ve also included journal prompts to help you unpick your own writing habits.
Be Multi Passionate
Many associate da Vinci with Renaissance art, particularly in the form of the Mona Lisa. You might think about his inventions. His sketches of bird wings went on to inform his designs for flying machines.Others think of his anatomical work, considered ground-breaking in his day. In fact, during the Renaissance, art and science weren’t as estranged as they are now. Scientists could only use executed criminals for dissection to understand the body’s inner workings.
Artists drew anatomy to let students keep studying outside the dissecting room. After all, what would you rather do in the height of a baking hot summer? Study a gorgeous illustrated book in a library? Or bend over a rapidly decomposing corpse with a scalpel?
Whichever mental image you have of da Vinci doesn’t matter. What matters is his multi-passionate approach to life. Art, design, and science weren’t separate disciplines for him. They were all ways to investigate or share what he’d learned.
Writers sometimes feel they have to put themselves in a box. We write, and that’s it. But it’s not. Da Vinci made great art and invented things. So, you can be multi-passionate, too. Many of the Skolion writers are also talented artists and designers. I’m a photographer and knitter, as well as a writer.
It’s by embracing your other passions that you often enrich your writing. Da Vinci’s talent as an artist informed his work as an anatomist. And his work as an anatomist helped him improve his art.
- How can your passions give your writing a boost?
- What are the hobbies, interests, or side projects you keep returning to again and again? How might they relate to your writing? If they don’t, what do you get out of them?
Always Keep a Notebook
No one knows for sure how many notebooks da Vinci had. Scholars believe it’s at least 50. They guess he created 20,000 to 28,000 pages. They contain notes or sketches on botany, zoology, architecture, warfare, and even philosophy. That’s on top of the anatomy, painting, and inventions he’s known for.
Da Vinci compiled his notes using mirror writing. It’s a style of writing that, as you might guess, you hold up to a mirror to read. Experts disagree about why he did it. Was he hiding trade secrets about wartime inventions? Or was he dyslexic and found this kind of writing easier?I’m not suggesting you need to develop your own form of writing. But you do need to get a notebook. And use it in a way that makes sense for you.
Keep it by your bed for those late night and early morning flashes of inspiration. Put it in your bag when you go out to record your observations throughout the day. You might think you’ll remember those amazing ideas you have on the bus.
You rarely do.
And it doesn’t need to be a notebook. You might carry a sketchbook and add drawings as you go. Maybe you’ll add ephemera, like cinema tickets or interesting images you see in magazines. A lot of writers love bullet journals, to organise both their lives and their writing.
I favour Evernote. I can dictate snippets to save as sound files. Or I can take photos and add them to notes. Or just type what I’m thinking on my phone. Then it’s right there in the desktop version next time I’m on my computer.
The format of the notebook doesn’t matter. The content absolutely does.
- Why do/don’t you keep a notebook?
- What different kind of notebook do you think you might want to explore?
Get Curious about the World
We’ve already talked about da Vinci’s multi-passionate approach. But none of his passions would have worked if he wasn’t deeply curious about the world.
True, he lived in an era where people knew less than they do now. The anatomists corrected old Roman beliefs about the four humours. Astronomers began questioning the idea the sun orbited the earth. We know the answers to these questions now. And if we don’t? There’s always Google.
But there’s still plenty to be curious about. There are new hobbies to learn, languages to try, or even types of exercise to explore. Just because the information is now available online doesn’t mean we can’t get curious about it. We need to learn about these things before we can do anything with them.
And writers who aren’t curious are less likely to tell innovative or interesting stories. Asking the ‘what if’ questions powers storytelling.
Pick something and learn all you can about it. Maybe add a time limit and see what you can learn in 30 days. Then move onto something else. This new knowledge can help inform characters and plots.
- What always fascinated you when you were little?
- What subjects or topics do you most often Google, or research on Pinterest? Why?
Experiment with Your Medium
We usually associate Da Vinci with painting. But he also used a technique known as metalpoint. Artists added gesso to their boards to give them a rough surface for drawing. Once dry, they drew on the boards with a stylus made from metal. The first metals were lead, and tin. But artists switched to silver because it gave better details and didn’t blunt the way tin did.
The silver rubbed off on the gesso, leaving the metal behind. Work created using this technique is beautiful. It’s astonishing when you realise artists couldn’t alter lines after drawing. Unlike graphite, that you can erase, metalpoint is fixed.What does this have to do with writers? Don’t feel you have to stick to one medium. If you always write novels, consider experimenting with poetry. Or a screenplay.
Goldsmiths used metalpoint to create the preparatory drawings for their finished pieces. Why not use short stories to explore the world or characters you’ve created before you start a novel? Or use flash fiction to delve into back stories and quirks of the world?
- Which other forms have you experimented with? Which did you enjoy?
- What writing style might you like to try?
Publish Your Work
Da Vinci always intended to publish a treatise on human anatomy. But he never managed, and his pioneering discoveries remained hidden for centuries. He could have revolutionised European understanding of anatomy.You may not have produced a work that rewrites the rule book of physiology. But your writing is still important. You have a voice the world hasn’t heard yet. People need to hear the story you want to tell.
So, make sure you publish your work. Follow the process and hire an editor before you do. We need your stories, not your typos. But get your work out there.
And ‘publish’ doesn’t have to mean landing an agent. Or putting your work up on Amazon.
You might share your knowledge on a blog. Or through a podcast. Start a Youtube channel. The world can never have too many ideas in circulation.
- If you haven’t published yet, what’s holding you back?
- What would you call your life story?
Many of da Vinci’s ideas didn’t work. But he paved the way for later artists, scientists, and designers to make theirs a reality.
Who knows who you might inspire in 500 years’ time?