Artists through the ages: Leonardo da Vinci

Posted: October 31, 2012 in Art, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The life of an artist and the works they produce can teach us so much about writing. And it doesn’t have to be boring! Check out the latest post in this series: “Artists through the ages: Michelangelo.”

The only logical follow up to Michelangelo would be da Vinci, don’t you think? He was also born in the mid 1400s and died in the early 1500s. He was a true Renaissance man – a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, inventor, and engineer among other things.

Interesting facts:

  1. He is considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time.
  2. He may be the most diversely talented person ever to have lived.
  3. He was born out of wedlock.
  4. He was a procrastinator (something we all can relate to!).
  5. He had drawn up things like a helicopter, a tank, and a calculator well before the time when these things were invented.
  6. Michelangelo and Leonardo were active artists at the same time and generally in the same place (Florence being one of the hotspots). They were notorious enemies.

Some of his most famous works include the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man. Again, this is an extremely short list, as da Vinci’s accomplishments are wide spread and much too lengthy to note in a single blog post.

“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

This is one of my all-time favorite quotes from anybody, and for good reason. All of the people we look up to as exceptional human beings – the artists, the movie stars, the athletes, and the great figures of history – those things didn’t just happen to them. They didn’t wake up one day and become president or the greatest cyclist the world has ever seen. They worked hard and chased their dreams.

As writers, we can’t expect stories or inspiration to just come to us. We have to chase down our muse and work toward that final goal of getting published. No matter how good of a writer you are, that’s not just going to happen. You have to make it happen.

“Obstacles cannot crush me; every obstacle yields to stern resolve.”

Every time I hear something about how writing is not a good career path, or how it’s such a hard business to get into, it makes me want to work that much harder. Obstacles stand in our way so that when we overcome them, we know that we truly deserve to be where we are. You can take a car to the finish line of the race, but it won’t be nearly as rewarding as if you ran the whole way yourself.

“Time stays long enough for those who use it.”

Just think about how much da Vinci accomplished in his lifetime. All of those paintings, those notes, those inventions. He worked with a 24 hour day, just like we do. And he had time for everything. Of course, the world back then is quite a bit different than it is today…

But that’s still no excuse. You have 24 hours to work with. There are obviously things that must get done – eating and sleeping and spending time with family, but the point is that there is still room to write. It’s up to YOU how you use those remaining hours. If you put it to good use, then there will be more than enough time in a single day to accomplish all that you want to get done.

 “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

I love this quote because it is so true. Do you think that when da Vinci put the final stroke on the Mona Lisa, he said, “Well, that’s perfect! There’s absolutely not one thing I would change about this.”

Yeah, not a chance.

I’m sure he hated some of his paintings and drawings. He was probably just as insecure as we are about our writing. But he didn’t let that stop him, and we shouldn’t either. A book will never be done. A sentence can always be tweaked, a paragraph can always be fixed, and a character can always be fleshed out just a little bit more.

But that kind of attitude comes from a person who will never get a book published. At some point you just have to say, “enough is enough.” This is as good as it’s going to get. It’s not perfect, but perfect just doesn’t exist (especially in our line of business). You have to lay down your pen and move on to the next thing in life, otherwise you’ll never move forward at all.

“A poet knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

This goes very well with the previous quote. It’s obvious that da Vinci doesn’t mean “perfect” in the literal sense of the word, for the very reason stated above. However, when you’ve chiseled at the novel for months, tweaking and tucking and nipping at every detail you can, you have to finally put it down and call it “perfect.”

Details can always be added. They may or may not be necessary. But when you finally have the right amount of everything – setting, description, characterization, etc. – and there is nothing left to take away that will not absolutely destroy the story, you know that your work is done. Most books, I believe, suffer from too much rather than not enough.

“Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.”

This idea floats around heavily amongst writers. “Take a day or two off and then go back to your story, things will just fall into place!” And it’s so true, isn’t it? Sometimes your brain just needs a break, and the only way it can truly get it is if it can completely forget about the project for a while. Even da Vinci, master of everything, knew how important it was to stop for a little R&R.

“I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”

This quote makes me so sad. Da Vinci was one of the greatest men to have ever lived. We’re lucky to have known of him, even if it is only through the scribblings in his notebook and the accounts of those who were blessed to have lived when he did. Yet here he is, thinking that he did not do his best, and that he could always have done better.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. You will never believe your work is important enough. Or good enough. You’ll never think that you tried your hardest or did your best. You’ll probably never feel as though you’ve reached that nirvana of perfection where absolutely every minute detail is flawlessly placed.

But that doesn’t mean that you haven’t done all of those things.

And even if you haven’t, that doesn’t mean that your work isn’t important, period. Or good, period. You did try your hardest and did do you best, even if you didn’t feel like it. Nobody reaches perfection, not even the gods and goddesses of the writing universe like JKR and Stephen King. Not even every minute detail in their works is perfect.

So give yourself a break. Lay off. Do what you do best: write. Da Vinci didn’t think he was all that great either, and look at the mark he left on history.

You can do that too, in time, if you let yourself.

  1. Catherine says:

    Reblogged this on Art History Ramblings and commented:
    Da Vinci, the man whose words will never lose their relevance.

  2. corajramos says:

    Great inspirational post. I had to do this (give my brain a rest) Sunday–when I stopped pushing on my writing that wasn’t working and took a day off to go to the lake. It did wonders for me.

  3. Julie Glover says:

    This is so awesome!!! I may need to look at DaVinci as a possible Wednesday quotes topic. He said some great stuff. And what a brilliant artist! I’m most fascinated by his sketches, though.

    Great post, Karen. Beautiful.

  4. I think the problem Leonardo had (and writers have it too) is that the perfection of a concept or idea in the mind never does translate on to the page, or into paint, or sculpture, or whatever. What emerges is unquestionably good to anybody but the frustrated artist, who has a better notion in their mind, if only they could express it somehow.

    Taking a break can definitely work wonders, even in terms of getting a better sense of perspective.

    On the other hand, a healthy sense of self-critique never hurt – and if we think our work is perfect then there’s no onus to keep improving. The trick, as you point out, is knowing when enough is enough.

    Incidentally, I remember trying to see that painting in the Louvre. Largely foiled by a bus load of Japanese tourists who stood between me and the artwork, and I couldn’t hang around waiting for them to go – we were on time-line to get to Paris Nord and a train. The glimpses I got were tantalising – but it’s remarkably unobtrusive an artwork in the flesh & I got a much greater thrill out of Leonardo’s pencil sketches, which came out to NZ on loan a few years ago.

    • Karen Rought says:

      You’re exactly right. It all comes down to balance. Be critical of yourself and push your self beyond what you think you’re capable of, but recognize your limitations and know that nothing will ever be without a few flaws.

      The Mona Lisa is seemingly always surrounded by a million people. I remembered being quite underwhelmed by it. It’s so small in person and it’s just a portrait. Not much to look at, really.

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