I recently went to see the MFA’s exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings with my friend, Mehri. The curation included some works by Michelangelo, and a few of their students as well. No paintings, just sketches and studies – small faces, figures, legs, torsos, hands and feet. The drawings glowed with mysterious light. It’s hard to imagine how he achieved this effect with metal point on prepared paper, only one color.
Many of the pieces had not been exhibited before, rare loans from private collections. I recognized some of the faces from his most famous paintings. Head of A Young Woman (deemed the most beautiful drawing in the world by critics) is a study for the angel in The Virgin of the Rocks. Simple in line and form, it radiates beyond its ancient paper. The renderings of old, wrinkly men are equally lovely.
Da Vinci completed hundreds of studies for his paintings. He was insatiably curious about science, going to great lengths to learn human and animal anatomy. His contemporaries thought he was crazy to collect specimens from the morgue, spending hours with decomposing bodies before they were buried in order to draw their motionless musculature. It seems that he spent more time sketching and studying than he did with an oil brush.
Something dawned on me as I walked among the small but magnificent samples of his skill. I’d never seen it before, although it’s been there in his work all along: Humility. I had imagined him at his easel, painting with vainglory, admiring his masterpieces with pride and intelligence. What I saw in these studies was a deep patience and inquisitiveness that can only come from an opposite state, one of waiting and learning, reverently absorbing every detail of the physical world in order to comprehend it.
Obviously, I don’t have any knowledge of his impressions. He was known to be a boastful man, and his rivalry with Michelangelo was legendary. But it seemed to me that part of him must have been in awe of what he was drawing – youthful faces, aged ones, birds in flight, galloping horses, mothers holding their infants. Perhaps he wasn’t working for his own glory, but to glorify them.
I returned home to work on the illustrations for my children’s book, expecting to feel demoralized by the scope of da Vinci’s genius. Instead, a burden was lifted. I tried to adopt a humble approach, letting go of how many studies it might take to get a simple image right. The process has something to teach me. Instead of seeing it as a series of mindless drafts on the way to something more compelling, I can accept it as a gift, a chance to spend time in awe of the subjects I’m rendering.