Leonardo da Vinci’s life was a living demo of his “seven virtues.” For those artists of life and of art who might plot to develop higher levels of accomplishment and greater self-realization, here are his seven virtues, as I understand them:
Curiosita — an attitude of curiosity and continuous learning. What, when, where, why, and how?
Dimostrazione — an ability to learn and to test knowledge by experience. Experimental nature.
Sensazione — a development of awareness and refinement of sight and other senses. High sensitivity.
Sfumato — a tendency to embrace and accept uncertainty, ambiguity and paradox. Free thinking.
Arte/Scienza — a development of balance between science and art, logic and imagination. Whole-brain thinking.
Corporalita — a calculated desire to achieve poise, fitness and ambidexterity. Physical action.
Connessione — a recognition that all things are connected. Systems thinking.
How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day, by Michael J. Gelb, and The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, edited by Pamela Taylor, are two of the noteworthy sources of Leonardo insights. In the latter, the first chapter, “The Painter,” is particularly valuable. For example, Leonardo neatly divides perspective into three types: “Linear perspective” — scientific diminution of objects as they recede from the eye; “The perspective of colour” — variations in colours as they recede from the eye; and “The perspective of disappearance” — the increasingly unfinished rendering of objects as they become more remote. Could anything be clearer?
In my daily evangelizing, I’m constantly devising ways to press creative people into thinking about things in a Leonardo mode. Whether we’re talking about flying machines, military engines or easel paintings, we are led to a greater realization of our potential through personal, self-generated knowledge of the what, when, where, why and how. Perhaps because of Leonardo’s charming admissions of personal weaknesses (procrastination, for one), we feel the uncanny presence of a contemporary who’s just dropped in from the local Brotherhood and Sisterhood. For many of us, an evening curled up with The da Vinci Mode would not be a waste of time.
PS: “Nothing is more apt to deceive us than our own judgment of our work. We derive more benefit from having our faults pointed out by our enemies than from hearing the opinions of friends.” (Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519)
Esoterica: The last time I looked, our own Resource of Art Quotations had 69 quotes from Leonardo. Now it seems that contemporary psychological research has revealed Leonardo-like info about the extent of our potential. Our brains are much better than we think. They are more flexible and multi-dimensional than any computer. They can learn seven facts per second, every second, for the rest of our lives — and there’s still plenty of RAM to go. If used properly, our brains improve with age. And this is not just in our heads — it’s in every cell of our bodies. Mona Lisa is winking at us. How totally Renaissance!
Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519
Artistic goals articulated
by Carole Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
Da Vinci’s seven virtues articulated so exactly the major goals every artistic soul hungers to achieve. Often we forget that art does not begin with execution. The work that has to be done on one’s self can never be over emphasized. Technical skills can be learned by almost anyone who has the determination to pursue it, but innovative ideas and the ability to express them comes from some place beyond the material world. In order for these creative impulses to flow through us, we must be able to achieve what can only be thought of as a “medium-istic” state. Art is, in its truest sense, a spiritual practice. The Seven Virtues as de Vinci stated them could easily be taken as divine commandments. Imagine, as John Lennon would say, what kind of world this would be if every person on the planet held these tenets dear and practiced them. Wow! What an extraordinary evolutionary leap that would be!
Left-brain thinking important in art
by Fred Hulser, Houston, TX, USA
I have spent a good deal of my life as a lawyer who painted. Now that I paint full-time, I find that people are often surprised to learn that a lawyer could paint. It seems that the emphasis on right-brain thinking has obscured the virtue Leonardo called “arte/scienza” — whole brain thinking — and its importance in art. I know that some very well known artists were lawyers or at least studied law, and I wonder if your database could come up with a list of artists who were lawyers or, like Leonardo, otherwise known for achievements usually regarded as “left-brain.”
Da Vinci work process revealed
by Stefanie Graves, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Last year during our trip to Florence, I stood in the Ufizzi Gallery and looked in awe at da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. I was overcome with the feeling that I was somehow standing looking over his shoulder, privy to his thinking through the evidence revealed in this unfinished work. Here you could see his sketching, his underpaintings, how he approached the painting as a whole. I loved that it was unfinished, and as such, a work process revealed. Seeing this painting seemed a special gift of this great man’s genius.
Not everybody could do it
by B. J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
The seven virtues of Leonardo da Vinci may have been innate within this great man, and they give us qualities to ponder and put into action. However, as Michael Gelb wrote in his book, when asked the question, “Does the author really believe that we can all be geniuses of da Vinci stature?” “Well, actually, no.” But he goes on to state that these virtues can be cultivated. After seeing da Vinci’s The Last Supper (and other paintings), his many drawings and many experimental inventions as built by IBM at his museum in Milan, one can only be amazed at the versatile abilities and thinking of this man. He was ahead of his time and that makes one wonder what he might accomplish in today’s world.
Being a ‘whole’ human being
by Marie Louise Eriksen
I bought Michael J. Gelb’s book a couple of years ago and find Leonardo da Vinci’s seven virtues fascinating. They are tacked to my studio wall to remind me that there are many facets to life and being a “whole” human being.
I think the principles are natural to us as children but as we get older we get too “grown up” to play and experiment, too busy and too sidetracked with everyday demands. In the end I think it’s a question of balance. Enrich/improve/empower your life in one area and all others will benefit. Sure, some of them are more difficult to implement, but to live a life that touches on most or all those aspects every day is something I aspire to.
Limbering up both sides of the brain
by Chantell Van Erbe, NJ, USA
A couple of years ago, I read How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day, by Michael J. Gelb. Any artist would benefit from its instruction. The book is filled with mental and physical exercises (like juggling) to limber up both halves of the brain. According to da Vinci, we tend to favor one side of the brain. Hence the right/left brain thinkers. But when both sides of the brain are operating in synchronicity, our responses to life become more alert. Our thought process is also lucid. We are able to perform better bodily and mentally. The lessons extend over into inventiveness because flexibility and creativity go hand in hand. My favorite two pieces of advice from the book were to “give even the most absurd ideas their due” and “write everything down on paper. The weakest ink lasts longer than the strongest memory.”
Class of free-flowing ideas
by Dean and Linda Moran, Tucson, AZ, USA
Barnes and Noble University offers a class based on the book How to Think Like Leonardo. I took was with a great group of people, lots of free-flowing ideas — wonderful resource to jump-start ideas. There were many people who used to be or still are in non-profits, so it was a nice eclectic group.
Bucking established structures
by Billie Bourgeois, Baton Rouge, LA, USA
How refreshing to read the story of Bern Will Brown. There are many of us ‘ex-ministers’ of sorts roaming around with brushes in our hands. I am an ex-nun turned painter, art teacher, wife, and grandmother over the past 40 years. I am one of your silent fans and followers. Thank you for your ‘ministry.’ I am a true believer that it is in the world of art and artists that we find the good news, i.e. Gospel, if you will. Will Brown’s eloquence on canvas confirms how important it is for each person to find their true vocation in life even if it means bucking the established structures. I have so many beginner students who discover their new calling, and I’m humbled that I have a tiny part in this amazing journey!
Writing for arts newsletters
by Wendy Hale, MA, USA
Many of the art organizations I belong to have newsletters with members’ news. Why is it I feel like I’m writing for People Magazine when I send in information? For me art is a very private part of me. We artists show our souls when we exhibit, and in everything we paint/sculpt/write/play/act, then we are asked to brag about it. I know this is good for publicity. Why do I not like doing it?
(RG note) Thanks Wendy. For many of us the idea of arts-based group activity is disturbing and disorienting. Contrary to popular belief, verbalizing, socializing and publicizing can kill creativity and sap initiative. In my opinion art groups and their publications work best when they stick to education, information and inspiration. If you descend into pecking order — who sold what, and who went where — you can bet your bottom brush that your group is well onto the slippery slope of mediocrity.
Letting ‘the children’ go
by Lorraine Khachatourians, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
How does one let go of a favourite painting? I have been painting for about five years now, and have started to sell a few at group shows. I only put what I think are my best work into the shows. However, sometimes, a painting becomes a favourite, usually because the subject matter has a particular meaning to me. I then have ‘separation anxiety’ about putting it in a show, because someone might buy it, and then I won’t have it any more. It is like letting your children go out into the world! But one can only keep so many paintings — wall space isn’t infinite. So how to make the break? Keep it, photograph it and let it go free? Maybe as the years go by, I will become less attached, and it won’t seem like such a wrench letting them go. I’d appreciate your insight on this.
(RG note) Thanks Lorraine. When I was a kid just starting to paint I used to take my paintings to bed with me. Sometimes I would fall asleep marvelling at them. As I grew older I became more particular in what I did, and, as a consequence, began to see more and more little boo-boos. The fussier I got, the more popular my work became. Now I’m totally fussy and they’re better off on other people’s walls where they’re more appreciated. They’re still mine.
The value of recreation
by Cyd Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA
It’s interesting that da Vinci thought of procrastination as a weakness, and did not include it as one of the virtues. In my book, surrender to life is at the top of the “to do” list that lets all the other virtues blossom without an Anthony Robbins-type sweat for success. M. Scott Peck, who wrote one of the best contemporary guidebooks to life, was once asked how he got so much done in so many different areas. He said the secret was spending two hours every single day doing absolutely nothing. As my grandmother used to say, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” She was a woman who broke barriers without ever being able to see them, and she built a fortune long before it was fashionable for women to do so. Peck told those around him that he prayed for two hours every day, because people were less likely to violate prayer than they were sitting and thinking. He had the courage, as my grandmother did, to surrender.
One of the greatest mysteries of human nature is our innate resistance to that which feels the best and helps the most. We’re not only a globe of sleep-deprived over-achievers on the fast track to burning out, we’re also peace-deprived and we consider procrastination, meditation, cogitation (how’s that for an old-timey word?) and a period of alert restfulness of the mind every day a flaw.
Perhaps Leonardo was able to develop his profound gifts and produce so much because of that which he resisted the most — pockets of time during which the mind can curl up and rest a spell. It seems as though the disease of constant motion and doing, doing, doing has a history long and deep. We will grab our rest for the mind in the midst of awakened awareness, but we call it procrastination and scold ourselves roundly for indulging. The Romans called it re-creation. We have bastardized it into recreation and call it a sin. What a pity.
The curse of procrastination
by Leonard Niles, Lincolnshire, England
How very refreshing that Leonardo had charming admissions of failure, one being procrastination, which is a curse on most multi-talented people and certainly explains why most of us seldom achieve any continuous recognition for our paintings in the art world. As you probably know, it is widely believed that Leonardo only left 30 paintings that were assumed to be finished. However, it would also be reasonable to assume that he left scores of unfinished ones.
“Procrastination is the thief of time.” (Edward Young) When I put away an unfinished painting I promise myself that I will come back to it later. I also know that in most cases it will never happen. Unlike ‘single-minded artists’ our ‘capacity to create’ takes us into a multitude of different directions, and just as many subjects, each one, at that precise moment in time, dominating our attention and then it is quickly surpassed by an entirely different subject. It is as if our minds consist of multiple chambers which we intermittently visit and cannot in all honesty stay out of. Our choice is endless. It is in the midst of all this profound activity we find ourselves painting with unparalleled enthusiasm and then on the next day writing endless chapters, mostly observations, with the same enthusiasm and interpretation. In most cases we lack all objectiveness, yet we paradoxically prescribe unquestionably to all of the seven virtues of Leonardo you have described.
by Sandi Whetzel, Days Creek, OR, USA
I am trying to find an economical way to hang my paintings in my studio that offers ease of changing the paintings around. I really like the idea of those unobtrusive horizontal metal tracks that suspend small metal chains or clear plastic strips from the tracks and include hooks for the paintings. There is some expense involved but what blows me away is the cost of the hooks in relation to the cost of the vertical supports and the horizontal tracks. The online research I’ve done has yielded only a few suppliers. I want 30-40 of the hooks and they are what make the cost prohibitive. I wonder if anyone of your readers might point me to a more economical source for the hanging system components or maybe another type of system. I want to have the ability to move the paintings around easily without marring the walls and hang several in a vertical configuration. Can anyone enlighten me?
Evening Of Romance
acrylic-mixed media on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
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