A modest-size city (population 70,000) which, in the space of a few generations, produced a concentration of artistic brilliance that has gone unmatched in history.
Leonardo’s Deep Practice
This clip is useful for marveling at the skill and breadth of Da Vinci’s work. It also contains telltale signs of his deep practice, the most evident of which is his lifelong habit of using a notebook for sketches and ideas (samples of which are shown here from the one- to two-minute mark). Da Vinci’s notebooks are a map of his relentlessly curious mind—and one that he constantly was redrawing and improving. One witness mentions “a little book he had always hanging at his belt,” ready to capture thoughts and images he would later rework, over and over, until he had uncovered something new.
Da Vinci recommended similar strategies for his students, requesting that they work only with pencil and paper—no colors or brushes—until they reached 20 years of age (a decree that reminds me of Spartak’s rule that students not compete in tennis tournaments for three years). Da Vinci explained:
“Many wish to learn how to draw, and enjoy drawing, but do not have a true aptitude for it. This is shown by their lack of perseverance, like boys who draw everything in a hurry, never finishing or shadowing.”
In other words, slow down, practice deeply, keep at it, and you get deeply good.
It seems almost impudent to presume that we can draw useful lessons from the Renaissance—the hotbed of all hotbeds. After all, we’ve been conditioned to think of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli et. al. as quasi-divinities—the ultimate natural geniuses of the art world.
But in fact, every one of those “divinities” were once seven-year-old kids, learning skills just like any other kid. While we obviously can’t recreate the combination of cultural/religious/historical forces that set the stage for the Renaissance (not to mention parents who enjoy sending off their seven-year-old to work full time as a painter’s apprentice instead of school), but we can do something just as powerful. We can look at the behaviors and methods—at the combination of deep practice, ignition, and master coaching—that systematically built some of the finest skill-circuits the world has ever seen. Those include:
- Copying. Modern notion of artistic genius is built around originality. Not so in Florence. Apprentices spent years learning their master’s skills—and not from textbooks (there weren’t any), but from simply doing. For apprentice painters, this usually meant making pencil sketches, over and over and over.
- A Craftsman’s Mindset. We might think of them as divinely inspired geniuses, but as scholars have pointed out, the Renaissance artists themselves did not share this view. Instead, they saw themselves as craftsmen—akin to a watchmaker or a brilliant tailor. This attitude—unselfconscious, detail-oriented—helped fuel the immense amount of hard work that created their fluency.