The distracted artist


Dear Artist,

In the most recent issue of the journal Brain, Marco Cantani, professor of psychiatry at King’s College London has linked Leonardo da Vinci’s chronic inability to complete projects to undiagnosed ADHD. According to Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 seminal artistic biography, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Leonardo jumped from project to project, slept only in short bursts and had trouble finishing his paintings. To Professor Cantani, the tumbling evidence is enough to suggest a posthumous diagnosis and explore the creative edge ADHD could offer affected artists.

The unfinished Adoration of the Magi (1481-82) by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

The unfinished Adoration of the Magi (1481-82)
oil on wood
97 × 96 inches
by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Attention deficit disorder (ADD), often referred to as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is the most common psychiatric disorder in children and adults, affecting between 5-10% of the population. Characterized by a persistent short attention span, distractability, disorganization, procrastination, forethought and judgment problems and in some people impulse control problems and hyperactivity, current neuroimaging studies have shown that the brains of people with ADHD are simply organized differently. After googling a two-minute online quiz where people can screen themselves, I wonder if rates are higher amongst artists. Here are a few questions:

The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist (c. 1499–1500 or c. 1506–1508) charcoal, black and white chalk on tinted paper mounted on canvas 55.7 × 41.2 inches by Leonard da Vinci

The unfinished Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist (c. 1499–1500 or c. 1506–1508)
charcoal, black and white chalk on tinted paper mounted on canvas
55.7 × 41.2 inches
by Leonard da Vinci

Do you have difficulty sustaining your attention while doing something?

Are you easily distracted by external stimuli, like something in your environment or unrelated thoughts?

Do you have difficulty in organizing or managing tasks?

Do you struggle with details or make careless mistakes?

Do you have trouble following through on instructions or finishing things? Do you get sidetracked?

Do you have difficulty waiting your turn, such as while waiting in line or in conversation?

Do you leave your seat in situations when remaining seated is expected?

Do you feel like you’re “on the go,” acting as if you’re “driven by a motor?”

What artists understand as a wandering mind, restlessness, daydreaming and an active imagination are the backbones of creative life. These qualities, along with thriving on change in order to propel forward with new ideas and original thought are an artist’s gifts; “ADHD is not a damaged or defective nervous system. It is a nervous system that works well using its own set of rules,” wrote psychiatrist William Dodson, M.D. in an article for ADDitude Magazine. “The vast majority of adults with an ADHD nervous system are not overtly hyperactive. They are hyperactive internally.”

Mona Lisa tweaked from c. 1503–1506 perhaps continuing until c. 1517-1519 oil on poplar panel 30 in × 21 inches by Leonardo da Vinci

The Mona Lisa
tweaked from c. 1503–1506 perhaps continuing until c. 1517-1519
oil on poplar panel
30 × 21 inches
by Leonardo da Vinci



PS: “Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

“On learning and in the rudiments of letters he would have made great proficiency, if he had not been so variable and unstable, for he set himself to learn many things, and then, after having begun them, abandoned them.” (Georgio Vasari, Delle Vite De’ Più Eccellenti Pittori Scultori Et Architettori, 1568.)

Esoterica: Perhaps it’s a matter of harnessing the wildness of our excited, curious minds with a personally honed, creativity-sensitive regimen, to be worked and fine-tuned over a lifetime spilling over with creative doing and play. According to Vasari, Leonardo got sidetracked with spending too much time in the planning stage. His lack of follow-through and intricately prepared but abandoned starts all fueled a feeling of regret at lost creative output that he carried to the end of his life. Professor Catani, who specializes in ADHD, wrote, “There is a prevailing misconception that ADHD is typical of misbehaving children with low intelligence, destined for a troubled life. On the contrary, most of the adults I see in my clinic report having been bright, intuitive children but develop symptoms of anxiety and depression later in life for having failed to achieve their potential.”

Leonardo self portraitThe Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“While impossible to make a post-mortem diagnosis for someone who lived 500 years ago, I am confident that ADHD is the most convincing and scientifically plausible hypothesis to explain Leonardo’s difficulty in finishing his works. Historical records show Leonardo spent excessive time planning projects but lacked perseverance. ADHD could explain aspects of Leonardo’s temperament and his strange mercurial genius.” (Professor Marco Cantani)



  1. Patsy Marino on

    As a parent of a child with ADHD, I always appreciate the reminder to reframe this disability as a different ability. It’s also nice to know that my child is in good company with so many creative people.

      • I wish I could leave this to the writer of this article. Adhd is way to overly diagnosed these days for a very simple explanation of a mood change, we all have them. It doesn’t mean he had adhd because of unfinished works. I for one am an artist with plenty of unfinished art pieces. Eventually I come back to them. It’s proven that artist’s get continuous ideas so many that they often hurry to capture it before the next great idea rolls in. I’m surprised at this writer , being a writer they too have a plethora of thoughts to enter their head. So that’s my final word on this article, or is it?

  2. Great information about the ways that various brains can work and the fact that they can “work well with their own set of rules” – how interesting – Great artists do that with their artwork it seems.
    I guess we can learn to encourage this process in others that have ADHD brains and in ourselves (diagnosed or not); it may bring about some amazing art!

    • Karen Phinney on

      I think I have some ADD as well. I do have trouble staying focused, am easily bored, impulsive and erratic at times. Often start too many things because I keep getting distracted. I like to paint quickly, as well. And don’t always finish everything I start. Oh well. I’ve been that way for over 70 years, guess it ain’t going to change now!

  3. Shellee Cunnington on

    Thank You Sara,

    This is a brilliant letter, I chuckled quite heartily when I scrolled down and saw the first painting “Adoration of the Magi”. Because the painting looks fabulous to me as is. I am drawn to paintings in the supposed unfinished stages. While viewing paintings in process, I enjoy filling in the missing parts it becomes an added connection to make with the work. The sketch stages have an energy that can be hard to keep in tact with the paint. I love finished paintings too because there is room for all forms.
    I am sorry that Leonardo was disappointed with the unfinished works, they are so beautiful. I also know that feeling of pressure to have polish on the work even though I do like the in process.

    It is wonderful to hear how the label ADHD can be looked at in a positive way. So many attributes of being human.

    Thank you again, sending good thoughts to you and all.

  4. Janet Black on

    Walter Issacson’s recent biography of Da Vinci is a fascinating read, dealing with his creative process, the times he lived in, and much much more.

  5. Kathleen Scott on

    Yes to all. I was hyperactive as a child, ADD as an adult and I too failed to, “live up to my potential” as they say, but I am alive, so who knows. When the subject of ADD hit mainstream in the 80’s and I read some books and realized it was who I was, what many of my family members are, and what people who became my friends were like. I figured out it was not a disorder, just a way of being that cannot thrive in enforced structure. The rise of Ritalin angered me. It takes a lifetime to learn to temper and direct a mind that is best described as, ‘relentless origami folding’. The best analogy I could come up with. I wrote a poem about it. It is not a disorder and I don’t think I would want to be any other way. As my younger son told me, when he asked to try Ritalin in his teens, he said “Mom, you should try it! It like nothing matters. You can do anything you decide to do, except create. Just can’t think new thoughts, but tests are so easy!” He didn’t stay on it long, and I never had the guts to find out what being inside a tidy chemical box would feel like. Might seem like relief in the beginning, but to take away my creative MEness?? No thanks. I am use to my angst.

  6. Richard Glet on

    I started the 2 minute test, halfway through I got distracted and started flitting between open tabs in my browser then came here to write this. Time to go back and finish the test (some hope!)…


    Sara, I always enjoy your letters and those of your father. On this topic, I’m not convinced that ADHD was the reason for Master Da Vinci’s unfinished work. As the professor admits, diagnosing the past is tricky at best.

    “History is not the objective chronicle of events but the subjective recognition of happenings sighted in the rearview mirror of being. History is now what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgement and chance.” Maria Popova

  8. Leonardo was the poster child for ADD, and my hero because of it. He, is, and I am , in good company; I’ve had it from birth, and it’s one of my most treasured parts of my being, as it was for Beethoven, Mozart, Einstein, and countless others….rock on, my fellow ADDers….

  9. Dear Sarah,

    OMGoodness…”Jack of all trades, Master of none,” is what I used to call myself. Sarah, I LOVED the quote you included, “…a nervous system that works well on its own set of rules.” Yes, yes, yes!

    I am six times the age of a Spring chicken. Two months into a crammed 2-years-in-one Master’s program, I get the diagnosis, “severe”. That was just two years ago. I was gobsmacked – still am. What do you do with that kind of information?

    Looking back – Things I’ve been told: “You are a “connector”.” “Did you know that you created a new system of service delivery?” “You were the one responsible for making this entire district accessible.” “As a professional, I cannot advocate for this new device, but you, as a parent, can.” All I could think of in each case: “I HAVE enough on my plate. Why did I have to do it?!”

    Today: Same-o, same-o.
    – three failed models of service delivery have lead to driving an effort to invent a model that WILL work
    – organizing a multi-stakeholder initiative to create a centralized support worker service so we can ALL benefit

    What I NEVER stop thinking about: The dangling carrot that brings me balance is the thought of KNOWING I will PAINT soon.. It is the place where I have my own set of rules, where I truly belong…I just have to get organized enough.

    Must run…I SHOULD have been working on a ten-minute speech I have to give in the Legislative Assembly On Monday – but I HAD to read Sarah’s letter, just HAD to reply. (You get the gist…). ‍

    With laughter, warmth, admiration, and appreciation,

  10. loretta miles on

    The ‘unfinished ‘ painting IS FINISHED! It completely says ALL that he felt important to say.
    Who is to tell him, the creative artist, how much
    Is necessary? When all he wanted to show us was completed, why waste time? ‘Put a fork in it!’
    Time to move to the next spurt of creativity.

  11. I really enjoyed this letter. I hope that they do not give Ritalin anymore. In the 80s it was prescribed for children in the school system in B.C., Canada. There was a boy that I had in my class that was given it and it really bothered me because it seemed ti made him lethargic and I didn’t see the point of it. I sure hope that things have changed and am sure they have. I retired in 1997 so I don’t know much about what goes on now but I think things are a lot better.

    I enjoyed the questions!!!!! A lot of them apply to me.

  12. I agree with your article – I am 73 and been a Fine Artist all my life (now a Classical Realist) – as well as an Architectural Designer, a Picture Framer, an Illustrator, a Building Renovator – Restorer, a Restaurant & Hotel Owner, an Air Conditioning Designer, a Survey Draftsman, an Australian Rules Footballer (at a high level), a Queens Scout, a Singer in a Band, involved in Politics (Sect. of a Branch), President and Sect. of 2 Service Clubs, had Art Galleries for about 40 years, have both a Maths and Science as well as an Arts Academic background, and more – sorry to bore you with the above. I have put the above not to brag or impress, but to try and explain what a complicated life I have had. I wish I could have been able to be more focused on a limited area – many regrets now! I have said many times that I wish I could live to 300 and maybe do all the things that I wanted to do. I also don’t sleep well – only a few hours a night if I am lucky (lifetime) and have to get up and “work”. Total of about 8 weeks and 3 weekend holidays in my life. Leonardo was and is my Muse, my Inspiration, my Tormentor, my first influence, and sometimes I “hate” him – I have a picture of him on my Studio wall, along side one of myself, and when I reached 68 years, I wrote on his picture “I’ve beaten you now – you only made it to 67”. I have been a Patron of the High School that I went to and embarrassingly and also flatteringly would introduce me at the Awards night as their “Renaissance Man” – I used to donate a cheque and certificate to a final year student in the Visual Arts. Saying all this – I have to say, I have at least 12 plus works to finish, and many other sketched ideas – some over 20 plus years and I am now half an hour behind opening the Gallery.

  13. I think there is a lot of truth to this. Although I was a psychologist in my younger years, I didn’t need that degree to understand what ADHD is all about. I’ve been living with it for years myself, and I’m not sure it’s something I regret. I just find it hard to square the symptoms of ADHD with the ability to get lost in a painting. What could be more enjoyable than that?

  14. I get lost and don’t know wheee the time went. Hours will go by and voila there it is a painting that I look at and say to myself I painted that and to know time went by… but time spent somewhere else in a beautiful time frame within that moving space of unaccountability and so meaningful to my well-being

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