Think Like Leonardo

One of da Vinci’s lesser-known paintings Salvator Mundi  (see note at bottom of this article)

It is easy to take the opinion that Leonardo da Vinci is the world’s most creative genius. You can debate that opinion but you have good evidence on your side.

I was fascinated with Leonardo when I first encountered his notebook drawings as a child. I know I did some biography book report on him in elementary school and built a model of his helicopter. It didn’t fly, but then either did Leonardo’s.

In my adult life, I came across How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb, and that got me thinking about Leonardo’s approach to thinking and creating. I taught several workshops using that book. They were fun to teach and participants always seemed to enjoy them too. (Gelb also published an actual workbook version of the book too.)

When Walter Isaacson’s biography, Leonardo da Vinci, was published I eagerly read that too. It’s excellent and gives you much more about da Vinci’s life and it changed my ideas about him.

One thing that we sometimes overlook about Leonardo is that for all the ideas, drawings, models and theories he had, he actually produced very little work.  He was probably an easily-distracted genius and might even be labeled today as having attention deficit disorder. This is another thing that makes me feel closer to Leo. I too have many more ideas for poems than poems, more sketches than paintings, more outlines for novels that will never be written and more To-Do lists of things I will never do.

Leonardo da Vinci was a painter. He created two of the most famous paintings in history –  The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But his lifetime output of paintings (as far as we know) was only a few dozen. Enough to make him a great painter, but certainly not the focus of his life.

If you were to engrave his headstone with “painter” I’m sure he would prefer that you add scientist and engineer.

Actually, he might suggest making it larger and including his interests in anatomy, fossils, birds, fluid dynamics from the heart to water pumps and viaducts, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry.

He is a great example of someone who blended the humanities and the sciences.

He certainly received some acclaim and patronage in his life, but he was also somewhat on the outside. He was born illegitimate, which in his time carried a harsh undeserved penalty.  He was gay. Even that he was a vegetarian and left-handed made him odder than others. He was heretical which didn’t help in a church-ruled place.

But he was brilliant, inquisitive, imaginative and all his oddity probably made him even better at thinking differently. Think out of the box? I doubt that Leonardo had any idea that there was a box.

In Gelb’s book, which reads like a workbook for the reader, he discusses what he calls da Vinci’s 7 principles that explain how his thought process worked.

From da Vinci’s notebooks, inventions, and works of art, each of Gelb’s principles is a lesson.

My favorite of them is connessione, the term for the appreciation of the interconnectedness of all phenomena and probably all things. To me, that is the greatest gift that a student, teacher, artist, writer or anyone in any profession can have.

It’s not a fair coverage of the principles or a workshop to list here the other principles, but as an introduction, these are the other six.

  • Curiosita – an insatiable curiosity
  • Dimostrazione – testing knowledge through experience
  • Sensazione – the continued refinement of the senses
  • Sfumato – a willingness to embrace ambiguity
  • Arte/Scienza – developing a balance between art and science
  • Corporalita’ – cultivating fitness and poise

Sfumato, the willingness to embrace ambiguity, is interesting because we usually think of ambiguity as a bad thing.

For Leonardo, it was firstly a painting technique which involves blending the edge between colors so that there is a soft transition. “Sfumato” in Italian translates to soft, smoky, vague or blurred. It was popularized by the old masters of the Renaissance in order to almost dreamy depictions. In the notebooks, da Vinci described it as “… without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.”

If you took art history, it might have been grouped with the painting techniques used by the old Renaissance masters, such as cangiante, chiaroscuro and unions. If you look closely at the Mona Lisa, you see the soft transitions between light and dark tones and the lack of hard edges around her eyes and in that famous ambiguous smile that still has us wondering what she is thinking.

But in the Gelb book, we move via metaphor from art or science to everyday life thinking. Do you embrace ambiguity? I know I am guilty of jumping too quickly when I have a question to a Google search or when I can’t recall a film title or actor or the name of that series about da Vinci I check IMDB.

Michael J. Gelb has further gone down the path with another book Innovate Like Edison that carries the subtitle “The Five-Step System for Breakthrough Business Success.” But business success doesn’t appeal me to in the way that I find creativity intriguing. Still, in a light reading of this book in the library this past week I did find crossover.

One of Edison’s secrets is no secret at all. The idea of keeping a notebook to capture creative thinking and including drawings and doodles (you don’t need to be da Vinci to draw) in order to capture ideas for later has been used by artists, writers, scientists etc. for centuries.

Still, I am guessing that the majority of people do not keep notebooks after they leave classrooms, though they may scribble notes and drawings on paper. Somehow, collecting them together and saving them is much more powerful. I have shelves of journals of life events, dreams, garden notes, quotations, poetry and poem ideas, and many other topics. I love starting a new blank, bound book whether it be some grand one bound in leather (a retirement gift) or one of the many Moleskine notebooks from pocket-sized to tablets that are on my shelf, on my desk and even in my car.

There is something about ideas, words, and sketches being bond into what feels a “book” that gives them greater importance. My personal journals started like diaries when I was 13 with almost daily entries but over the years have become monthly essays made from notes I make day to day about events and impressions.

I can look back at what I was doing or concerned with back in April 1971 (high school graduation and heading off to college dominated) and one day I will hopefully be around to reread my timeline of the coronavirus pandemic that I’ve been recording the past three months.

Looking back at old journal entries makes thin synapses fire up again (most of the time) and is nostalgic. My major observation in the teen year journals is how much I lied in my writing. Was it wish fulfillment, magical thinking or the thought that someone else years later would read it and believe it? Was I thinking about my children, grandchildren – a biographer?

My garden notebook records the first and last frost dates, which seeds and plants did best in the vegetable garden each year and notes on houseplants, pests, fertilizers and green things.

My dream journals record dreams that even when written down often seem like someone else’s dreams and writing to me after just a few weeks or months.

Finally, all my online writing may have a longer shelf life than those journals. It certainly has more readers!

A page from the notebooks of Leonardo’s studies of a fetus in the womb – (c. 1510), Royal Library, Windsor Castle via Wikimedia

A note on the painting at the top of this article, Salvator Mundi.
This is generally considered to be by Leonardo da Vinci from about 1500. Art historians think it may be a copy of a lost original. There are many other versions, some certainly done by students and followers, but we also have chalk and ink drawings of the drapery that were done by Leonardo and indicate his preparation for the painting. It has much overpainting and has been restored, so the original may have been quite different. The painting shows Jesus Christ in an anachronistic Renaissance outfit. He is making the sign of the cross with his right hand and holds a transparent, non-refracting crystal orb in his left. That is supposed to indicate that he is Salvator Mundi, Latin for ‘Savior of the World.” The crystal symbolizes the “celestial sphere” of the heavens.