The epitome of the Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci was, among many other things, a masterful drafter. I believe his drawing method can inspire not only painters, illustrators, or cartoonists but also writers. It can help us write better.
By adapting his drawing method to our writing practice, we could improve not only the precision of our writing but also its vibrancy. Here’s a five-step breakdown of Leonardo’s drawing method and how we could apply it to writing.
1. The artist should copy the drawings of a good master to exercise his or her hand.
For us writers, the equivalent of this is to read great books. Honore de Balzac may have copied the style of great writers to improve his own style, but we don’t have to go that far. Rather, we can be more about what we read.
What we read influences both what we write and how we write. Which is why it’s so important to read authors whose style is like the style we ourselves try to develop. That could mean eschewing the popular titles that most easily make their way to us and letting our writing style guide our reading choices more.
2. In bed at night, go over the contours of your drawings in your imagination.
Thinking about writing all the time may not be the best approach because good writing often happens spontaneously when we don’t try to rationalize it. Yet imagining scenes and characters in our moments of relaxation and living among them in our imagination could help us write more vividly. Imagining our stories at night could make the writing flow more easily the next day.
3. Avoid excessive study.
We could apply this advice on two levels. First, on the level of reading. Reading too much theory and writing advice can dampen our enthusiasm for writing. As Somerset Maugham said, there are three rules for writing a novel, but unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.
The second level concerns planning and research. Again, both of these are often needed, especially with more ambitious works, but there’s the danger that we will get tangled in facts and plot lines. For every hour we spend researching we need to spend at least two hours writing.
4. Keep a sharp look for figures in movement and note down their main lines.
By default, we go about our business doing things. We look but don’t see. We hear but don’t listen. We need to pay more attention. To zoom in on the things around us.
Not all of us like to carry a notebook and jot down impressions and ideas as we explore the world. But then we don’t have to. The important thing is to observe the world, the people, the details that define them.
Our memory itself acts like a sieve that helps us separate the key details from the rest. And if we really have to take a note of something, we can use a voice recorder.
5. If you have a bestial face, so too the faces you draw will be lacking in grace.
Our writing reflects not only what we think or what we feel, but who we are. We need to be aware of that and open ourselves to the world, let it pass through us and on the page.
Sometimes this may mean suspending judgment and allowing ourselves to feel shame and embarrassment. We can’t be objective in writing, but then we don’t have to. Seeking that glow of understanding that we so often find in Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, we can write in a way that is true to ourselves, and write well.