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Q & A with the exhibition curator

2 May 2019 marked 500 years since Leonardo da Vinci died in France, aged 67. As part of our series of exhibitions to celebrate the artist’s life we asked  what you really wanted to know about the man. Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings answered a selection of your questions.

Materials and techniques

Some of the questions related to the drawing materials and techniques the artist would have used at the time.


What materials did Leonardo prefer to use for his drawings? What did he use to make sketches outside?
Most of Leonardo’s drawings- even his landscapes - were probably drawn in his studio. Outside he probably used a metal stylus in small pocketbooks of prepared paper, or a quill pen with a little bottle of ink.

This short film demonstrates some of the materials and how they would have been prepared.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Drawing Materials ©

Did Leonardo da Vinci pioneer any drawing or painting techniques?
As a painter, Leonardo took the use of transparent glazes of oil paint to new levels, obtaining the most subtle highlights and shadows - the ‘sfumato’ (smoky) effect he is famous for. In his drawings he pioneered the use of natural red and black chalks, which became the favourite media of the high renaissance and baroque periods.


Why did Leonardo use mirror writing?
Leonardo was left handed, and he must have found it easier to ‘pull’ the quill pen rather than pushing it against the nap of the paper. Writing from right to left also meant he didn’t smudge the wet ink with his hand.

Leonardo da Vinci's writing

Leonardo da Vinci's writing ©

What artistic development can we see in Leonardo's work?
Leonardo came to believe more & more in the scientific basis of painting. His early works show a strong interest in light and colour; he studied these phenomena for years, and his late works try to capture the effects of light with painstaking accuracy.

This is the leather binding of the album made up for Pompeo Leoni in the late sixteenth century to house over 500 of Leonardo’s drawings, including all the anatomical studies now known. The album was brought to England, probably by the agents of Tho

The Leoni binding ©

Drawings in the Royal Collection

Other questions covered how the works became part of the Royal Collection and how wide the range of drawings are.

Just how extensive is the Royal Collection regarding Leonardo da Vinci and how would you classify them?
Leonardo’s drawings ranged across every subject that interested him, but they were divided by subject in the 16th century, and the Royal Collection drawings are strong in anatomy, landscape, botany, maps, horses and studies for paintings. We have few of his inventions in engineering, which are now mostly in Milan.

 

How come the Royal Collection has so many works by Leonardo da Vinci?
All the 555 Leonardos in the Royal Collection have been together as a group since Leonardo’s death. He left them to his favourite pupil, they were bound into a single album around 1590, and that album was acquired by King Charles II around 1670.

 

Influencers and Impact

People were interested in knowing both who influenced Leonardo and how his works impacted the world.

Was Leonardo da Vinci influenced or inspired by other contemporary artists?
In his youth Leonardo learned a lot from Andrea del Verrocchio, in whose studio he worked during the 1470s - and from him learned much about painting, sculpture, architecture, engineering - and fantasy. He gleaned elements from many other artists too, but he always transformed them to his own vision.

 

What was Leonardo's impact on subsequent artists/scientist? What was his artistic and/or scientific legacy?
Leonardo was one of the most celebrated artists of his day, and his work influenced a century of artists across Italy. But his scientific work was unpublished and largely unknown, and despite his great researched (in anatomy for example) he had little or no impact on those fields.

 

A drawing of a map of Imola, showing the city enclosed by a ring. Four lines cross the plan, forming on the circle eight points of the compass, at which the names of the winds are written in Leonardo's hand, clockwise from one o'clock.<br>

A map of Imola ©

What in your view is Leonardo's most underrated work?
Martin said "In my view Leonardo's most underrated painting is 'La Belle Ferroniere' in the Louvre Museum in Paris - one of the greatest portraits of the Renaissance. His map-making should be much better known too - his survey map of Imola is outstandingly accurate."
 

Was Leonardo a celebrated artist in his day like he is at present?
Yes, Leonardo was a famous artist in his own day, avidly sought after by patrons in both Italy and France, and hailed by the artists’ biographer Giorgio Vasari in 1550 as the first artist to work in the ‘modern style’.

 

Was Leonardo well respected in the other fields he worked in, such as botany and engineering?
Leonardo’s work as a scientist was barely recognised in his own day, for he never published anything. He clearly had a reputation as a civil engineer, as he was consulted on drainage schemes, but his work as a mechanical engineer is hard to assess: little, if anything, was constructed to his designs.

 

Teaching and Learning

Some of the questions touched on his working practices and education.

What do we know about Leonardo’s early art education?
We know very little about Leonardo’s early life. In 1472, aged 20, he was registered in the painters’ guild in Florence so he must have completed his artistic training by then, but we don’t even know whether his early training was in Florence or elsewhere.

Learn more about Leonardo's life in this film

©

Did Leonardo have his own workshop?
For most of his career Leonardo has his own studio with a small number of assistants, who helped him to paint some of his works. But he had ‘pupils’ only for a short period in the late 1480s - he wasn’t temperamentally cut out to be a teacher.

 

How much did his students contribute to his work? Or did Leonardo complete paintings by himself?
Some of Leonardo’s paintings - such as the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery in London - have large areas that were painted by assistants. It also seems that assistants produced versions (not quite copies) of his paintings under his supervision. This seems to be the case with a fascinating version of the Mona Lisa in Madrid, for example.

 

To learn more about Leonardo da Vinci and to see over 200 of his drawings visit our exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

Related exhibition
Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing

A nationwide exhibition of drawings to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death