Master Spotlight – Leonardo da Vinci


Leonardo da Vinci is one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most talented person ever to have lived. His excellence in many different arts and sciences exemplified him as the definitive Renaissance Man. His most famous painting is La Gioconda, a portrait better known as the Mona Lisa.

Leonardo was born Italy in 1452 during an artistic and scientific revival called the Renaissance. Little is known about his childhood but he kept journals and he did write down some of his memories. When he was fourteen, Leonardo became an apprentice to one of the most famous artists of his day, Verrocchio. Leonardo received a wonderful education there. When he was twenty, Leonardo qualified as a master in the guild of artists and doctors of medicine. Leonardo became famous as a painter, a scientist, and an engineer.

In search of new challenges and big bucks, Leonardo entered the service of the Duke of Milan. The Duke kept Leonardo busy painting and sculpting and designing elaborate court festivals, but he also put Leonardo to work creating weapons, buildings and machinery. Alas, Leonardo’s interests were so broad that he rarely finished what he started. He left dozens of paintings and projects unfinished.

Nonetheless, Leonardo’s paintings became famous for the inventive techniques that he used to apply paint, his detailed knowledge of anatomy, light, botany and geology, his interest in the way in which humans show emotion with their faces and their gestures, and the way that he arranged the people and objects in his art work. All these qualities come together in his most famous paintings.

Leonardo’s studies in science are as impressive and innovative as his artistic work. Leonardo actually anticipated many discoveries of modern times. In anatomy, he studied the circulation of the blood and the action of the eye. He made discoveries in meteorology and geology, learned the effect of the moon on the tides, foreshadowed modern conceptions of continent formation, and guessed the nature of fossil shells. He was one of the originators of the science of hydraulics, the study of water in motion; his design for the canals are still used today. He invented a large number of ingenious machines, many potentially useful, among them an underwater diving suit. His flying devices, although not practical, embodied sound principles of aerodynamics.

His approach to science was observational: he tried to understand things by describing them in the utmost detail. Leonardo closely observed and recorded the effects of age and of human emotion on the human body. As a successful artist, he was given permission to dissect human corpses at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence and later at hospitals in Milan and Rome. He drew many studies of the human skeleton and its parts, as well as muscles and sinews, the heart and vascular system, and other internal organs.

Leonardo also worked as an engineer. His journals include a vast number of inventions, both practical and impractical. They include musical instruments, hydraulic pumps, reversible crank mechanisms, finned mortar shells, a steam cannon, a submarine, and shoes for walking on water! He even devised working bridges and hang gliders.

After an invasion by the French, Leonardo traveled throughout Italy for a number of employers. He worked as a military engineer. He also designed a bridge to span the “golden horn” in Constantinople and he re- ceived a job painting the “Battle of Anghiari.” He wound up working in Rome but, when his patron, Giuliano de’ Medici, passed away; King Francis I of France invited Leonardo to become Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King. Leonardo passed away in the king’s arms in 1519.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

The last time Leonardo was our master of the month, my students did a pretty amazing job drawing their own versions of the Mona Lisa. This year, I’m using the master to launch a year of design, invention, and innovation projects. What I like most about da Vinci though are his studies of water. I haven’t seen a LOT of them, but I love the idea of one of the greatest artists of history watching the motion of water for that long.

Water study by Leonardo DaVinci

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci by yours truly, Rama Hughes.

Learn on Skillshare

Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at
Thomas James

Posted by Thomas James on 08/20/13 under master of the month


Submit your illustration:

Select an image on your computer:
Choose File no file selected