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Leonardo da Vinci Speaks!


Dear Friends:

Many years after Leonardo’s death, what is considered the most remarkable observations about art, writings were compiled from his original manuscripts providing the student of art with precise instructions from attitude to completed art.

Thanks to “Leonardo da Vinci – A Treatise on Painting” translated from the Italian by John Francis Rigaud for Dover Publications, I pulled together several of his instructions which I think will only wet your appetite to pursue reading this entire little book with such enormous content.  At the end you will find several book recommendations which you may find very interesting.  Enjoy. God bless. OM


Leonardo da Vinci  Speaks


“The young student [in Painting] should, in the first place, begin to acquire acknowledge of perspective, to enable him to give to every object its proper dimensions: after which, it is requisite that he be under the care of an able master, to accustom him, by degrees, to a good style of drawing the parts. Next, he must study Nature, in order to confirm and fix in his mind the reason of those precepts which he has learnt.  He must also bestow some time in viewing the works of various old masters, to form his eye and judgment, in order that he may be able to put in practice all that he has been taught.”

“Those who become enamoured of the practice of the art, without having previously applied to the diligent study of the scientific part of it, may be compared to mariners, who put to sea in a ship without rudder or compass, and therefore cannot be certain of arriving at the wished-for port.  Practice must always be founded on good theory; to this, Perspective is the guide and entrance, without which nothing can be well done.”

 “Linear Perspective consists in giving, by established rules, the true dimensions of objects, according to their respective distances, so that the second object be less than the first, the third than the second, and by degrees at last they become invisible.”

[Note: Leonard recommends that we close one eye while looking at the subject we are drawing. Since we are trying to convert three dimensions (as seen by our two eyes) into only two dimensions on paper, closing one eye flattens the depth of field, thus approximating the two dimensional world of drawing. Leonardo explains that when looking with two eyes we introduce two points of sight.  In the example (A & B), two eyes view two subjects, one behind the other (M & N). The base of the visual rays is so broad that the second subject (N) is actually seen behind the first (M).  When we look with only one eye (See S), subject (F) will completely cover (R). This is because the visual rays commence at one point in the center of the eye, form a triangle, of which the subject we are looking at (F) is the base. The one eye view forms two diverging tangents at the extremities of (F). These tangents do not touch (R) and therefore we cannot observe it. OM]



“The outlines of objects will be less seen, in proportion as they are more distant from the eye.”
“Painting is divided into two principal parts.  The first is the figure; that is, the lines which distinguish the forms of bodies and their component parts.  The second is the colour contained within those limits.”

The form of bodies is divided into two parts: that is, the proportion of the members to each other, which must correspond with the whole; and the motion… of the figure.”

“Measure upon yourself the proportion of the parts, and, if you find any of them defective, note it down, and be very careful to avoid it in drawing your own compositions.  For this is reckoned a common fault in painters, to delight in the imitation of themselves.”




“Accustom yourself to hold a plummet in your hand, that you m ay judge of the bearing of all parts.” “When you begin to draw, form in your own mind a certain principal line [action line], observe well the bearing of the parts towards that line; whether they intersect it, are parallel to it, or oblique.” [Note: Once you have established this line, this main movement of subject, then observe the movement of all connecting parts of the subject – such as the stem of the flower, then each of the petals, all parts forming supportive lines to the main action line. OM]

“Motion is created by the lost of due equipoise, that is, by inequality of weight; for nothing can move of itself, without losing its centre of gravity, and the farther that is removed, the quicker and stronger will be the motion.”  

[“Note: The balance of motion is both simple and complex. We can draw with so fixed a line that the subject appears stiff and lifeless.  In the alternative, we can create action lines that are leaning too far off their balance, giving a viewer the sense that the subject will topple over.  So the importance here relies on correct observation of movement and its portrayal so that the design will reveal a good balance between movement and equipoise.”OM]


“To draw accurately any particular Spot, take a glass as large as your paper, fasten it well between your eye and the object your mean to draw, and fixing your head in a frame (in such a manner as not to e able to move it) at the distance of two feet from the glass; shut one ye, and draw with a pencil accurately upon the glass all that you see through it.  After that, trace upon paper what you have drawn on the glass, which tracing you may paint at pleasure, observing the aerial perspective.”

[“Note: To add to Leonardo’s idea of a  “Glass Plane”, Filippo Brunelleschi (    1377-1446), one of the foremost architects and engineers of the Italian Renaissance, conducted a famous experiment that demonstrated fundamental rules of perspective drawing; Then, later, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), Italian humanist author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher and cryptographer, wrote the first modern treatise on painting,  Della Pittura (On Painting), in which he acknowledges and gives credit to Brunelleschi for the invention of Linear Perspective.  Alberti states that the ultimate aim of an artist is to imitate nature – especially emphasizing its beauty. His position is that it was the artist’s job to make his picture represent that world as if the person looking at his painting were in a room and looking out a window.  The “Alberti’s Veil” shown here is one of his methods.  He also suggests drawing grids on glass windows so artists can copy the scene.

Alberti's veil

Albrecht Dürer (1472-1528) , German painter, printmaker, mathematician, and theorist from Nuremburg, resonated deeply with Italian theoretical pursuits. To this end he wrote Four Books of Human Proportion (Vier Bücher von menschlichen Proportion published during his lifetime in 1528), as well as an introductory manual of geometric theory for students, which includes the first scientific treatment of perspective by a Northern European artist.

Two of his woodcut illustrations of perspective devices and drawing systems are includes here.



Here is a modern adaption of the Grid System, called the Perplexi®, the portable perspective.

which was designed by me in 1996 after the historical models.

Perplexi Image #1
Learn more about the Perplexi® here:


“The student who is desirous of making great proficiency in the art of imitating the works of Nature, should not only learn the shape of figures or other objects, and be able to delineate them with truth and precision, but he must also accompany them with their proper lights and shadows, according to the situation in which those objects appear.”

“The knowledge of the outline is of most consequence, and yet may be acquired to a great certainty by dint of study; as the outlines of the human figure, particularly those which do not bend, are invariably the same.  But the knowledge of the situation, quality, and quantity of shadows, being infinite, requires the most extensive study.

“It requires much more observation and study to arrive at perfection in the shadowing of a picture, than in merely drawing the lines of it.  The proof of this is, that the lines may be traced upon a veil or a flat glass placed between the eye and the object to be imitated [as described above in On Drawing Systems].  But that cannot be of any use in shadowing, on account of the infinite gradation of shades, and the blending of them, which does not allow of any precise termination; and most frequently they are confused.  The extremities of objects which are at some distance, are not seen so distinctly as if they were nearer.  Therefore the painter ought to regulate the strength of his outlines, or extremities, according to the distance. The boundaries which separate one body from another, are of the nature of mathematical lines, but not of real lines.  The end of any colour is only the beginning of another, and it ought not to be called a line, for nothing interposes between them, except the termination of the one against the other, which being nothing in itself, cannot be perceivable; therefore the painter ought not to pronounce it in distant objects.”




Leonardo writes quite a bit about this topic from what surfaces receive the most color, the truest colors, and include recommendations for mixing colors to form secondary colors.  He states that Black and White are not “reckoned among colours; as one is represetative of darkness, the other of light; yet I will mention them, because there is nothing in painting more useful and ncessary…but an affect produced by lights and shadows, vis., chiaroscuro.”  After black and white come blue, yellow, then green and umber, then purple and red and states these eight colors are all that nature produces.  With these he begins his mixtures.

Leonardo refers to beautiful colors, transparent colors, colors with and without gloss; colors of shadows, and colors of remote objects.  He states that “The painter who is to represent objects at some distance from the eye, ought merely to convey the idea of general undetermined masses, making choice, for that purpose, of cloudy weather, or towards the evening, and avoiding, to mark the lights and shadows too strong on the extremities.” Remote objects, therefore, are to be treated with the “lightest touch” so that the “beauty of proper and natural color” is achieve.

“The shadows of any colour whatever must participate of that colour ore or less, as it is nearer to, or more remote from, the mass of shadows; and also in proportion to its distance from, or proximity to, the mass of light.”

With regard to the Shadow of White, “to any white body receiving the light from the sun, or the air, the shadows should be of a bluish cast; because white is no colour, but a receiver of all colours. We learn that the surface of any object participates of the colours of other objects near it, it is evident that a white surface will participate of the colour of the air by which it is surrounded.”

Colors in regard to backgrounds with reference to outlines:  “The extremities of objects which are at some distance are not seen so distinctly as if they were nearer.  Therefore the painter ought to regulate the strength of his outlines, or extremities, according to the distance.”

“The natural colour of any visible object will be diminished in proportion to the density of any other substance which interposes between that object and the eye. Let the colours vanish in proportion as the objects diminish in size, according to distance.”

Whatever be the colour of distant objects, the darkest, whether natural or accidental, will appear the most tinged with azure.  By the natural darkness is meant the proper colour of the object; the accidental one is produced by the shadow of some other body.”


Leonardo da Vinci – A Treatise on Painting. Translated by John Francis Rigaud. Dover Publishers.

Leon Battista Alberti – On Painting. Translated by Cecil Grayson.Penguin Books.

5 Responses to “Leonardo da Vinci Speaks!”

  1. Johnny Limo says:

    WOW this is very valuable info, THANKS. Please keep up the great work. I am looking forward to your next news letter.

  2. haydee hirsch says:

    just to say thank you so much for all the wonderful information you share with us your readers—

  3. Betsy Frank says:

    This article is very informative and well done. I’m looking forward to reading more and learning from these master artists.