Page 5 (Chapter 2)
Here is the method as it is described in Leonardo’s Advice To Artists.
(It is reprinted from the Oxford edition of “Selections from the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci”, edited by Irma A. Richter.)
“I cannot forbear to mention among these precepts a new device for study which, although it may seem but trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless extremely useful in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is, when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you can then reduce to complete and well drawn forms. And these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine.”
“Do not despise my opinion, when I remind you that it should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which if you consider them well, you may find really marvelous ideas. The mind of the painter is stimulated to new discoveries, the composition of battles of animals and men, various compositions of landscapes and monstrous things, which may bring you honor, because by indistinct things the mind is stimulated to new inventions.”
Dmitri Merezhkowsky, in his extraordinary book “The Romance Of Leonardo da Vinci”, part novel, part biography, offers his own beautiful translation:
“It may be that many would consider such power of invention absurd but I, by my own experience, know how useful it is for arousing the mind to discoveries and projects. Not infrequently on walls in the confusion of different stones, in cracks, in the designs made by scum on stagnant water, in dying embers, covered over with a thin layer of ashes, in the outline of clouds, – it has happened to me to find a likeness of the most beautiful localities, with mountains, crags, rivers, plains and trees; also splendid battles, strange faces, full of inexplicable beauty; curious devils, monsters, and many astounding images. I chose from them what I needed and supplied the rest. Similarly, in listening closely to the distant ringing of bells, you can find in their mingled pealing, at your wish, every name and word that you may be thinking of.
Irma A. Richter offers a second version of the translation, which I include here for anyone who cares to read it, or you can jump to page 6:
(…“Look at walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colors. If you have to invent some scene, you can see there resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys and hills, in various ways. Also you can see various battles, and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes and an infinite number of things which you can reduce to good integrated form. This happens on such walls and varicolored stones, (which act) like the sound of bells, in whose pealing you may find every name and word you that you can imagine.”)
Note: I placed the above paragraph in parentheses because, although it is in the Oxford edition of Leonardo’s Notebooks edited by Irma A. Richter, it is almost identical to the paragraph above it aside from some minor differences which are shown and compared below:
1 … wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones
1a… walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colors
2 … figures in action; or strange faces
2a… lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces
3 … endless variety of objects
3a… an infinite number of things
4 … which you can reduce to good integrated form
4a… which you can then reduce to complete and well drawn forms.
5 … these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells
5a… This happens on such walls and varicolored stones, (which act) like the sound of bells…
I do not know if these are two separate manuscripts, or two different translations of the same manuscript. If the former, then Leonardo made the changes in the two separate paragraphs deliberately; revealing to us the nuances of meaning that his mind sifted through as he searched for the precise manner of expressing his thoughts.
This then is Leonardo’s advice; his “secret” method, obscured by generations of neglect. It is too easy to assume that the neglect is its own self-justification; that there had to have been cogent reasons for ignoring Leonardo’s advice; that even if we don’t know what those reasons were, that others before us knew and felt justified in their neglect. Let us shake off that assumption, and unless we can find good reason for ignoring Leonardo’s advice then it would surely behoove us to take this as a starting point for further study, and with an open mind to follow the path wherever it may lead.
For your imagination only (FYIO) – wall image:
Enemy at the gates. 1.
Enemy at the gates. 2.
It goes without saying that the fugitive images that Leonardo saw on the walls of 15th and 16th century Milan and Florence had vanished even during his lifetime. The images that follow were found using his method. They give an idea of the kind of image he would have seen and which he describes in his Advice To Artists.
Here is the first wall image I propose we study:
What do you see in this image?
I see the face of a handsome young man. Or is it the face of a beautiful woman? Do you remember what Merezhkowsky said – “a face full of inexplicable beauty”. The face is in profile view, turned slightly in our direction. But look again. You may see the face, while still in profile, turned slightly away from you gazing into the rear distance.
The perfect Image.
You may think that the image is imperfect. It is the unmodified image, just as Leonardo would have seen it. He confirms this. He writes – “by indistinct things the mind is stimulated to new inventions.” Note the word “indistinct“. To search for perfection is a human attribute. Nature merely provides us with the raw canvas. The random placement of mold stains on a wall, the haphazard patterns of colored stones as in a terrazzo floor or within a sheet of granite, the momentary fleeting disposition of cloud patterns – those are the sources of our images. “Nothing straight ever grew on humanities crooked tree”, says Kant. So it is with Nature. The perfect image that needs no human improvement cannot exist in Nature’s randomness. It is for the mind to see beyond the chaos and create those marvelous images of which Leonardo speaks – first to see them, then to imagine them as they could be, and then to physically render them with pen and paper. “….which you can then reduce to complete and well drawn forms.”, is how Leonardo describes the process.
Leonardo’s method and his drawings.
Note that Leonardo specifically recommends that after we have found our image, we should then draw it. “Reduce to well drawn forms” he says. The images are not intended to be used solely for entertainment – to be found and then ignored. He tells us to draw them, to record them, to use them as reference for our paintings in our studios – (remember, he is addressing us as his fellow artists.) Are we now to believe that he ignored his own advice; or did he himself in fact draw and record those “marvelous” images of which he speaks? The question we should be asking is this – are Leonardo’s stained walls the source of some, possibly many, of his drawings? To my mind there can be no doubt, for if he believed his advice was important enough to be written into his notes, and to be intended to be published after his death so that future artists could follow in his footsteps, then surely he is describing what he himself practiced. It remains to be determined which of Leonardo’s drawings are from life and which are from those spectral images that he found in his stained walls? A new challenge, and a new and fascinating, undoubtedly controversial yet fruitful field of study never yet attempted, lies before us.
Now look a little to the right of the image. Do you see the face of a man, disproportionately small, gazing at the first image (highlighted in the rectangle)?
How would Leonardo adapt an image like this?
We know that Leonardo would have used pen and ink or charcoal on paper as he developed his image. For us it is much easier since we have modern technology at our disposal. So let’s zoom out a bit and start here and see what can be done with the image:
Here is a quick sketch to indicate how Andy Warhol might have gone about it:
This is just one of a myriad of ways that the original wall image can be adapted. It was doodled by the author of this website using a new Apple iPad Pro and a sketch pen.
Here is the original image cropped differently and with a tonal shift suggesting an androgynous image — a woman with flowing tresses, or possibly the face of an Alexander with his curling hair — the only limit is the limit of YOUR imagination.
The following wall image, which will be analyzed in chapter 5, page 20 (The Wondrous Shepherd Boy), demonstrates how Leonardo utilized his wall images. I have added lines to the second of the two images to sketch out a possible face.
End of interlude.
How we do it.
If you get around to trying Leonardo’s method you’ll see it’s not difficult. Just keep your eyes moving across a particular wall that looks promising. Do this in a kind of soft-focus until an image jumps out at you. Don’t belabor it. If you see nothing keep your eyes moving, constantly searching. Enjoy it. You’ve entered Leonardo’s world.
But it is so much easier for us than for Leonardo. All we have to do is find a nicely stained wall, perhaps under a highway where years of damp have created fascinating wall stains that the City Public Works Department through lack of zeal has not yet white-washed over; perhaps the deteriorating facades of houses in poorer neighborhoods painted long ago; or perhaps the moldering tombstones of antique cemeteries. Then with our camera we take lots of photos which we download onto our computer, and in the comfort of our studio or office we gaze at the images on our screen. At this point there are things we can do that Leonardo could not do. We can flip the image upside-down for example, or flip it 90 degrees left or right.
How Leonardo did it.
Leonardo has been walking down an alley. He feels quite safe. He is a tall man and very strong for the era in which he lives, and probably armed for self-defense. It is said that he can bend a horseshoe with his bare hands; and it is still daylight. It will be too dark to see the walls clearly after the sun goes down. Nobody will disturb him. He is studying the walls intently. He sees an image like our face above. The practical artist takes over. He takes out his chalk or charcoal, and records the image in his sketchbook as a reference for a future painting. Passers by ignore him. They don’t even try to understand what he is doing. He’s from a higher social class, perhaps not quite right in the head, or simply an artist. He draws the image in his sketchbook as soon as he finds it. The image is ephemeral. He cannot wait till tomorrow. The first rain might wash it away; or a horse pulling a cart for example might scrape the wall in passing.
A similar scene as described by Merezhkowsky:
“This evening I saw him, standing under the rain in a narrow, dirty and stinking alley, attentively contemplating a wall of stone, with spots of dampness – apparently one with nothing curious about it. This lasted for a long while. Urchins were pointing their fingers at him and laughing. I asked what he had found in this wall.
‘Look Giovanni, what a splendid monster, – a chimaera with gaping maw; while here, alongside, is an angel with a gentle face and waving locks, who is fleeing from the monster. The whim of chance has here created images worthy of a great master.’
He drew the outlines of the spots with his fingers, and, to my amazement, I did actually perceive in them that of which he spoke.”
Whether Merezhkowsky himself saw such images, or is using an authors prerogative to imagine just such a wall image, the point should be made that there is an infinite number of such images out there in the world, and that how wonderful it would be if those who read this account should take their cameras and photograph wall images, and send them to this website to be shared with everyone.
But back to the image of the face above. We have agreed that it is imperfect and indistinct. Remember how it was formed – by the random positioning of stains on a wall. Leonardo says of such wall stains …. “if you consider them well”… by which I understand him to mean that to find his marvelous images some mental effort is required on our part – so that as well as studying the stains, we have to give free reign to our imagination, and to see beyond the imperfections. What does it matter if the lips are slightly distorted, the chin too large, the eyes not quite properly positioned. Our minds see beyond that. Our imagination allows us to see the image instantly as a face complete and perfect, overlooking the flaws and seeing only what we want to see.
Question: Why is the particular image of the face above of some importance?
Answer: Because I found it in my basement… Let me explain.
How I did it.
I read those paragraphs of Leonardo’s Advice To Artists. I understood them to be intended to be taken literally. I took my camera and went down into my basement to look for images. I snapped some pictures, and put them up on my computer screen, and immediately this image jumped out at me.
What is the importance of having found this image in my basement? My logic is this – if I can find an image like this at my first attempt and in my own basement, then there must be countless numbers of such images out there waiting to be discovered. And by the same logic, if I can find this image so easily, then Leonardo with his practiced eye would have found innumerable such images. You may think I am exaggerating so I call on Leonardo’s own words as corroboration – “You will see an infinite variety of things.”, he says, and “an endless variety of objects,” – words that show he had no doubt of the vast store of unique images awaiting any artist who would choose to practice his method.
wall image (FYI):
I see a haunted druid forest – Germania. A.D. 12.