Leonardo’s strange faces

Leonardo da Vinci made ugly beautiful, an approach Francis Bacon did well to mimic nearly five hundred years later.
Leonardo da Vinci made ugly beautiful, an approach Francis Bacon did well to mimic nearly five hundred years later.
Leonardo da Vinci made ugly beautiful, an approach Francis Bacon did well to mimic nearly five hundred years later.
Leonardo da Vinci made ugly beautiful, an approach Francis Bacon did well to mimic nearly five hundred years later.

There’s an excellent piece in the NY Times about Leonardo Da Vinci’s obsession with drawing weird faces:

Leonardo was a true Renaissance man, fascinated with everything — the mechanics of flight, architecture, engineering, botany, artillery and human anatomy — but one of his favorite private pastimes was to draw faces, either as scribbles in the margins of his notebooks or as fully conceived sketches later used for paintings.

Leonardo da Vinci made ugly beautiful, an approach Francis Bacon did well to mimic nearly five hundred years later.

Leonardo’s To-Do List

In his book Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image, historian Toby Lester translates one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s to-do lists. On it includes tasks like “calculate the measurement of Milan and suburbs” and “examine the crossbow of Maestro Ganneto.”

It is no wonder the polymath is often referred to as the genius of them all. 

Below is the original list, along with NPR’s illustrated translation.  

Wendy MacNaughton for NPR

Leonardo da Vinci and the Codex Huygens


The Codex Huygens is a Renaissance manuscript for a treatise on painting closely related to Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Its author has been identified as the North Italian artist Carlo Urbino (ca. 1510/20–after 1585), who must have been familiar with Leonardo’s notes before they were dispersed. Some of the drawings are faithful copies of now lost originals by Leonardo. Others, like the Vitruvian Man, are related to Leonardo but independent interpretations in their own right. The extant manuscript, which appears to be only a fragment, includes five sections (books or regole).

Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin

Copy-paste, retweet, regram. We have it so easy.

Can you imagine having followers who traced your work so these pieces could live on?

More Leo

Bill Gates on the genius of Leonardo da Vinci

A good book review from Bill Gates on Walter Isaacson’s latest book Leonardo da Vinci.

More than any other Leonardo book I’ve read, this one helps you see him as a complete human being and understand just how special he was. He came close to understanding almost all of what was known on the planet at the time. That’s partly because scientific knowledge was relatively limited back then, partly because he had a high IQ, but mostly because he was insatiably curious about pretty much every area of natural science and the human experience. He studied, in meticulous detail, everything from the flow of water and the rise of smoke to the muscles you use when you smile.

Curiosity is king.

Leonardo Da Vinci: Thinking with an extra wrinkle in the brain

Why Leonardo da Vinci wrote backward

The imagination of Leonardo da Vinci

‘Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else’

“Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” — Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo da Vinci quotes, Leonardo da Vinci art, Leonardo da Vinci history, Leonardo da Vinci drawings, #art #paintings, Leonardo da Vinci paintings, Leonardo da Vinci kids

‘Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.’

— Leonard Da Vinci

Read more about Leonardo Da Vinci on the blog:

‘Water is itself the obstacle to water’

Loop Water GIF by Living Stills-source
gif by Living Stills

Leonardo da Vinci obsessed with water more than any of his multidisciplinary interests: architecture, science, painting, and sculpture.

For Leonardo da Vinci, the current represented that perfect chaos that separated air from water. In his Book on Waters, he wrote:

Nothing shares a surface with something and something shares a surface with nothingness. And the surface of something is not part of that thing, whence it follows that the surface of nothingness is part of nothingness, whence it follows that a single surface is the limit between two things that are in contact. Since the surface of water is not part of the water, and hence is not part of the air or of other bodies placed between them, what is it then that divides the air from the water?

Below is one of Leonardo’s sketches on the movement of water from 1508. It demonstrates the paradox of water in, around, and again itself.

Leonardo da Vinci water #drawing #sketch #art
Leonardo, da Vinci, 1508-09 (Paris MS. F)

Writes art historian Irving Lavin, Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical Studies at the Institue of Advanced Study:

…water in percussion: that is, water is itself the obstacle to water, and in this case the contrast is between the resulting currents on the surface, under the surface, and surging upward carrying bubbles of entrapped air. The relationship between air and water, both in combination and as analogous media, was also a subject that greatly preoccupied Leonardo and played a critical role in the development of his thought that concerns me here.

The structure of a stream lies within its anti-structure. There’s the unpredictable and disruptive movement of its flow. Yet freshwater slithers over rocks, persisting unperturbed all the way into the mouth of the river.

The chaos of running water seems to be why it works.

Read Leonardo’s Watery Chaos

‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” wrote Leonardo Da Vinci. He would paint over work that didn’t meet up with his expectations.

Simplicity is the reduction of complexity. It subtracts the gray space in the middle and renders it black and white.

Simplicity comes from revision

Simplicity retains the essence and deletes the rest. Take a look at the sequence of Picasso’s drawing of a bull. He pairs down the bull from full detail down to its fundamental shape.

picasso bulls head #creativity #drawing #art

Once we remove the excess, we can retain what’s essential. But the final result appears intuitive because all the explaining was done in its reduction.

Leonardo Da Vinci: Thinking with an extra wrinkle in the brain

Leonardo da Vinci: Mock-up for a flying machine

  No artist contained an extra wrinkle in their brain as big as Leonardo Da Vinci. He was a creative genius who combined the disciplines of both art and science to make something new.

Leonardo’s formula: see, contemplate, emulate, remix, and recast.

His undivided mind drove his imagination which led him toward discovery and innovation. He was also a tinkerer, even a procrastinator. Below are some sketches from his notebooks where he noodled on concepts and ideas.

“Learn how to see.
Realize that everything
connects to everything else.”

Drawing of bird in flight

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”

Drawing of torso and arms

“He who can Copy can create.”

Studying a seated man and stream of water

“Learning never exhausts the mind.”

Study of hands

All images via @ArtistDaVinci

Lessons from a genius

via giphy

Leonardo da Vinci had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation.

— Walter Isaacson, Leonardo Da Vinci

We get caught up in SAT scores and grades as gauges of smartness. But curiosity unlocks the keys to innovation and combinatorial creativity.

The undivided mind

Via The Imaginary Foundation

Wonder sits at the intersection of science and art. Combining the two disciplines is what fueled Leonard Da Vinci’s creative genius. The imagination needs time to daydream and gather string, letting the unconscious connect the dots between disparate things.

Said author Walter Isaacson on the artist in his new book Leonardo da Vinci, “procrastinating like Leonardo requires work: It involves gathering all the possible facts and ideas, and only after that allowing the various ingredients to simmer.”

“I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand. Why shells existed on the tops of mountains along with the imprints of coral and plants and seaweed usually found in the sea. Why the thunder lasts a longer time than that which causes it, and why immediately on its creation the lightning becomes visible to the eye while thunder requires time to travel. How the various circles of water form around the spot which has been struck by a stone, and why a bird sustains itself in the air. These questions and other strange phenomena engage my thought throughout my life.”

— Leonardo da Vinci

Curiosity unites both art and science to help realize the improbable.

Why Leonardo da Vinci wrote backward


Leonardo da Vinci wrote backward (mirror writing) because he didn’t want others stealing his ideas. Writes Da Vinci biographer Rachel A. Koestler-Grack:

“The observations in his notebooks were written in such a way that they could be read only by holding the books up to a mirror.”

But did a genius who combined art and science so brilliantly really need to hide his work? Perhaps it was practical: as a lefty, he didn’t want to smudge the ink. As a contrarian, Da Vinci also strived to be different. As blogger Walker’s Chapters writes:

“Do you really think that a man as clever as Leonardo thought it was a good way to prevent people from reading his notes? This man, this genius, if he truly wanted to make his notes readable only to himself, he would’ve invented an entirely new language for this purpose. We’re talking about a dude who conceptualized parachutes even before helicopters were a thing.”

Read more: Why Did Leonardo da Vinci Write Backwards? A Look Into the Ultimate Renaissance Man’s “Mirror Writing”

Study of five grotesque heads, 1493


From the 16th to 18th century, Leonardo da Vinci’s grotesque sketches from the High Renaissance period in 1493 were his most emulated and celebrated works of art. Wrote art historian Kenneth Clark: ‘For three centuries they were [seen as] the most typical of his works. Today we find them disgusting, or at best wearisome.’

The beauty is in its strangeness. Why did we ever lose our taste in monstrosities?

The imagination of Leonardo da Vinci

“To truly be creative, you have to work across disciplines,” says author Walter Isaacson on Leonardo da Vinci’s creative genius.

After five years of writing and research (‘gathering string’) comes the eponymous book Leonardo da Vinci, due out this October but available for [easyazon_link identifier=”1501139150″ locale=”US” tag=”wells01-20″]preorder on Amazon[/easyazon_link].

Two things stuck out at the most in the above conversation:

    1. Even Leonardo da Vinci left projects unfinished. He didn’t have the luxury of a Steve Wozniak to execute all his ideas. Nevertheless, the art of delay means that procrastinators can still be finishers.
    2. Some say the Mona Lisa is really just da Vinci in drag. Leonardo was gay, and Florence, where he resided, was a safe haven for homosexuals.

Gathering string 

Photos by Wells Baum

I perceived a delta flanking amid the rocks, even before the slightest flash of interpretation.

Sight precedes inquisitiveness.

“Describe the tongue of a woodpecker,” howled Leonardo Da Vinci, standing atop the forest trees.

Curiosity drafts for curiosity’s sake. We can all spot patterns in a state of wonder.

Leonardo da Vinci’s resume, distraction as an ‘obesity for the mind,’ Einstein’s celebrity, new tunes, and more!


Links Worth Reading

Leonardo da Vinci’s resume

“I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.”

So wrote Leonardo da Vinci in his resume to the Duke of Milan. Your future employer cares less about what you’ve done and more about you’re going to do for them. Da Vinci mastered the art of selling himself through his resume. Might we learn from him 500+ years later?

Matthew Crawford: ‘distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind’

The philosopher William James once said “What holds attention, determines action.” He lived mostly in a world of silence, before the instant distraction of buzzing cell phones and pop-up messages. You can throw your phone into the ocean, or you can search for silent areas such as the business-class lounge in the airport. In short, “Silence has become a luxury good.” Or as Chad Wellman recently wrote in his 79 Theses on Technology. For Disputation,

“We should evaluate our investments of attention at least as carefully and critically as our investments of money.”

If time is money, distraction is the accumulation of pennies.

Albert Einstein was a genius, but he wasn’t the only one – why has his name come to mean something superhuman?

Einstein was a genius, no doubt. He also happened to have crazy hair and a “way with words.” But how much of his celebrity was due to his timing with the proliferation of mass media: newspapaper, radio, and TV? Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes and was equally genius but she was a woman.

“Had he lived in another era, Einstein might have been a decent physicist, but he wouldn’t have been the Einstein we know.”

That’s Hollywood.

How a bee sting saved my life: poison as medicine

Venom saves lives. Ellie Lobel curbed her Lyme’s Disease by accidentally getting stung by a swarm of bees. Now she uses them to sting her on purpose.

“Rare cases like Ellie’s are a reminder of the potent potential of venoms. But turning folk knowledge into pharmaceuticals can be a long and arduous process.”

Meanwhile, “an airbag saved my life.”

The colors of paintings: Blue is the new orange

According to data blogger Martin Bellander who downloaded and studied about 130k thumbnails, the color blue became a popular painting color in the 20th century. He notes one possible reason for the rise in blue.

“Blue has historically been a very expensive color, and the decreasing price and increased supply might explain the increased use.”

Blue was my favorite growing up. As the Observatory podcast explains, the color blue is soothing like a Tiffany’s box, or hospital scrubs.

New Music

Episode 49 | Tunes of the Week

  1. Throwing Snow — Lumen
  2. Mikos Da Gawd — Shaku
  3. Electric Wire Hustle — Golden Ladder
  4. Ruff Draft — Broken Tooth
  5. Braille — The Cat’s Gone Nuts

> Listen

Thought of the Week

Buysness is…

“a boast disguised as a complaint.” – Tim Kreider