Learning from Leonardo - The Importance of the Rough Draft



Quick! Take 30 seconds to name your top five Renaissance painters.

How about the top three most famous paintings in the world?

Chances are good that you would name Leonardo da Vinci as a Master - and his Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous painting in the world.

Did you know that one of the greatest master painters spent more time on his rough draft than any of us do today?

In Florence in 1503, Leonardo da Vinci started a portrait of Madam Lisa Gheradini (Giocondo), the wife of a local aristocrat – amazingly, this painting was still on an easel in his studio in France when he died 16 years later and is now on display in the Louvre in Paris – you know her as the Mona Lisa. He spent years on how to capture her thoughts in her facial expression, most clearly was her smile.

What’s been fascinating to learn from the latest exhibit at the Louvre in Paris, who have done infrared scans – reflectographs - of da Vinci paintings to find the rough sketches under layers of paint – is the existence of a rough draft! These “masterpieces” did not burst magically from the inspired hand of the master – no, not at all – the exact opposite – they came to be through refined sketches, layers of paint – and years and years of work and re-work.

Most of us go through life day-to-day pretty much winging it. We might do a little meeting preparation or run some ideas past a colleague on the way into a conference room. We might spend some time practicing for a public speaking engagement. We generally don’t plan weeks, months, or years ahead – working on our masterpiece. As these infrared scans of Leonardo’s paintings suggest, well, maybe we should?

Leonardo da Vinci was a unique human being. We know that. But what these reflectographs show us is that he spent as much or more time on the rough draft – the practice version – as he did on the final product.

Who does that?  We certainly don’t. But Leonardo did.

What’s amazing and inspiring about da Vinci – as he worked for years trying to perfect his portrait of Lisa – was that it was never finished – he never gave up working on it. From the first rough sketch until his death bed, he sought perfection – and his work has lived on for centuries, even though - for him - it still wasn’t ready for the world to see.

Why don’t WE take the same kind of pride in our finished product?

We can learn a lot from da Vinci, even if we are not in the group of Old Masters today – we can aspire to get there someday.

The infrared “sketch” of the Mona Lisa looks a lot like a black and white version of the final product. But this was his rough draft – clearly refined several times – as a sketch – or “cartoon” as they call it.

We hear a lot about agile development processes – putting things out there early and getting feedback. There’s a lot to be said for that - but to look back to see an Old Master spend more time on the pre-release version is an interesting perspective.

HR professionals can play the role of the Sforza’s and other patrons to push their (da Vinci) managers towards perfection before beginning work on the end result. 

Some things that managers can do:

  • Rehearse conversations and be prepared with feedback. Anticipate questions and be ready with answers.
  • Send drafts of written feedback for review before officially posting – particularly how these will be received by diverse audiences.
  • Spend extra time making sure the original is worthy of feedback to become a masterpiece.

As we begin the new year, we all have grand aspirations to do better in our jobs.

It’s powerful to see how da Vinci prepared himself for success with his paintings. Studying, practicing, sketching, researching. We can learn from his diligence.

To do work that’s going to persist over hundreds of years, of course, we want to do a sketch first. The reflectograph work at the Louvre shows us how Leonardo’s pre-work had the power, influence, and impact on his final product.

A reminder and a lesson for all of us as we head into the new year, wanting to make an impact in our organizations and turning our day jobs into something lasting and special.

Best wishes for the year ahead and may 2020 be a year of great vision!

Read other posts in this series.


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