This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – March 2008. Follow the link to subscribe to the newsletter .
I just finished reading “Leonardo on painting”, which is – as the title suggests - an anthology of Leonardo da Vinci’s writings on the art, craft and science of painting. This book has been edited by Martin Kemp and published by Yale Nota Bene.
Some pieces of advice are dated, because of the advance of science or customs. However, many advices stood the test of time, like Leonardo’s advice on judging paintings.
1. Don’t trust your own judgement
“There is nothing that deceives us more than our own judgement when used to give an opinion on our works.”
“When a work stands equal to one’s judgement of it, it is a bad sign for the judgement. When the work surpasses one’s judgement that is worse, as happens to someone who is astonished at having produced such good work, and when the judgement disdains the work this is the perfect sign.”
If you have to rely on your own judgement, then keep reading to find techniques to distance yourself for your work.
2. Seek advice from someone else
“We clearly know that errors are recognisable more in the works of others than in our own, and often, while finding fault with the minor errors of others, you will ignore your own great ones.”
We are drawn naturally to seek advice from peers on the basis that, as artists, they are more able to judge a work of art. However, Leonardo points out that anyone’s advice can be valuable:
“Certainly while a man is painting he should not refuse anyone’s judgement. For we know that one man, even though he may not be a painter, still knows what another man looks like and is well able to judge, whether he is hunchbacked or has one shoulder higher or lower than the other, or whether he has a large mouth, or nose or other deficiencies.”
3. Use a mirror
“When you wish to see whether your whole picture accords with that you have portrayed from nature take a mirror and reflect the actual object in it.” His idea is that the mirror’s reflection gives you a good point of reference because its surface is flat like for the painting.
Leonardo also advocates another use of the mirror. Rather than looking at the subject in the mirror, you can look at the painting in the mirror: “The work will appear to you in reverse and will seem to be by the hand of another master and thereby you will be better judge of its faults.”
4. Take a break and get a fresh look at your painting
Putting distance between yourself and your painting is also taking time off, putting it away and coming back to your work with a fresh pairs of eyes:
“It is also good to get up and take a little recreation elsewhere, because when you return to your work your judgement will have improved.”
- Leonardo on Painting: Anthology of Writings by Leonardo Da Vinci with a Selection of Documents Relating to His Career as an Artist (Yale Nota Bene)
- Art pricing tip from Leonardo da Vinci
- Fingerprint your paintings