Leonardo da Vinci Drawings

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These are not just little tips and techniques, but a full course of learning how to see, think, and draw like an artist.

The Biography

The author of the famous Leonardo da Vinci drawings was born in 1452, near Florence, as the illegitimate son of a well-heeled notary and a peasant girl.  When the father married into a wealthy family Leonardo was fully welcomed into the family. 

A brilliant child, he early showed talent for mathematics and music, then at the age of 17 was apprenticed in Florence to one Andrea del Verrochio, a master artist and goldsmith. During this time he began to demonstrate his fascination for the natural world, studying rocks and rock formation, and began his interest in invention, by designing at this time a diving suit and a helicopter.

Leonardo Da Vinci's supposed self-portrait

He had his own workshop from 1478 to 1482, then took a position as court artist to the Duke of Milan, living in that city for seventeen years. There he worked for the Duke as something of an engineer, designing artillery and diverting rivers.

He then variously spent time in Rome, Bologna and Venice, notably staying at the Vatican Belvedere when Michelangelo and Raphael were also working for the Pope.  The end of his life was spent in France working for King Francis I, with whom he became close friends.  Today the French treasure the legend that says da Vinci died in the arms of the king.

"Leonardo da Vinci Dying in the Arms of François I", by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1818

The Drawings

The Leonardo da Vinci drawings are such a remarkable testament to this artist's endless curiousity and boundless imagination! From plants and flowers, to the flight of birds; from how water flows to how a horse moves; sketches for paintings; even the most intimate workings of the human body were observed, studied, and carefully recorded. Ideas for war machines, helicopters and hang gliders came to life under his pen, as well as bridge plans and stage setting designs - even shoes for walking on water !

On his death the Leonardo da Vinci drawings were later gathered into collections, called "codex". The lucky owners today include the Vatican, the British Royal Family, the Spanish and French States and even Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder, who purchased the Leicester Codex in 1994 for about 30 million dollars. This last codex travels the world, being put on public display once a year in major cities.

This sheer volume of the Leonardo da Vinci drawings is strange when you consider he is best known for being the painter who executed the world's most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. Yet we only have about a dozen of his paintings, whereas there are over 13,000 pages of notations, sketches and finished drawings.  It is a tribute to his genius that while he was a master painter, he was just as great a draughtsman; this is certainly because drawing was such a useful tool to him as not only an artist, but also as a scientist, anatomist and inventor.

A tricky thing has been determining if a given drawing actually was executed by the Leonardo da Vinci; in the 15th century, artists were not given to signing their works.  However, we know da Vinci was left-handed, writing famously in mirror writing and also drawing in a special left-handed way, as apparent in the circled part of the horse to the left. 

Using a technique called "hatching", he worked by sketching in series of short, quickly-drawn parallel lines, and as a lefty these lines went exceptionally from the upper left down to the lower right; most artists, right-handed, hatch from the upper right down to the lower left.

But this isn't the only thing that tips off that we are looking at real Leonardo da Vinci drawings.  Throughout his long life he also developed a number of his own personal drawing tricks, including inventing curved hatching, to give an especially three-dimensional look, as in the horse to the left.  This kind of detail, together with criteria such as his overall style, lineage of ownership of the drawing, and the materials used, has helped determine whether we have a real da Vinci or not.

What kind of materials did Leonardo use? When he was young he did a lot of sketching with metal pencils (silver was common in his time) on tinted paper. When he was in his maturity he much preferred colored chalk, although he also used a brush and ink, or a pen and ink for life studies.

His favorite, when you look at the collection of Leonardo da Vinci drawings as a whole, was a red chalk called sanguine, although he did use a black chalk as well.  For example, when he was designing The Last Supper, he began by drawing with a pen to lay things out in a general way, but then he turned to his favorite red chalk to get into the more delicate details of the faces and expressions.  This came in handy when he was ready to paint.

Leonardo took artistic exploration of light and shadow very far, and because sanguine has a finer grain it brought him closer to the delicate shadowing he is famous for as a painter.  If you have always wondered why some call the Mona Lisa the greatest painting in the world, it is because of precisely this nuanced shading.  It's the secret behind that smile of hers.

There is such a mind-boggling diversity to the Leonardo da Vinci drawings - from flying machines to botanical studies to animals.  In particular, I have been intrigued myself by the drawings of people.  This has been something art historians have wondered about, because oddly, it's very easy to divide the people drawings into two big groups:  ideally beautiful and young; and so old, ugly and grotesque that these latter drawings are called caricatures.

Some say he was deeply interested in psychology; others wonder if he didn't have some kind of peculiar obsession; others affirm he was trying to prepare studies for students to copy.

I think the answer is artistic, as demonstrated by this citation from his Notebooks, which I've translated here from the Italian: “I say again, in representing action, a combination and juxtaposition of strong contrasts should be sought, because each is reinforced by the comparison, inasmuch as they are close, like the beautiful next to the ugly, the big next to the small, the old next to the young, the strong next to the week; they should be compared as often and directly as possible.”

Another curiosity about the Leonardo da Vinci drawings is that he would often draw several versions of exactly the same thing. When preparing a painting, of course he prepared dozens of studies for it (although we can find no studies for the Mona Lisa!); that makes sense. 

But he would also draw a nose, for example, again and again, with little variations.  It turns out he was working on stocking an inventory of bits of drawing that he could mix and match as needed to execute a study for, let's say, St. John the Baptist. We know this because art historians have been able to match elements from his drawings to elements in his paintings.

Just how serious was da Vinci about learning to draw? I have translated another citation from his Notebooks that will give you an idea of the answer: “Once you have drawn something so many times you believe you know it by heart, try to draw it without a model; then draw it again with the model, on a thin sheet of glass, and set (the glass) on the drawing you did without seeing the model. Keep in your mind those parts where the drawing (on the glass) doesn’t cover your drawing, and recopy the erroneous bits as many times as necessary so you have the model in your imagination perfectly.”

Try your hand...

Below are several PDF images of Leonardo da Vinci drawings for your to download and practice copying from. 

You can begin by printing out the one you like.  Set your piece of drawing paper over it and hold it flat against a window to trace the outline.

Now let's get to work.  As you look at the image, squint, which will flatten out the many different tones and make it easier for you to just see where the lights and darks are.  Holding your pencil almost horizontal to the paper, making light sweeping little strokes, gradually shade in where you see darks and leave the paper bare where you see lights.  Add more shading to darken.  Use a kneaded eraser to lift off the graphite or charcoal if you go too far.

Want to take a quick look at how to use kneaded erasers this way?  Take a look at the Drawing Supplies and Equipment page.

If the Leonardo da Vinci drawings seem too hard - don't be discouraged!  Rather, try taking a small part of one you like and practice squinting at the drawing to see where the lights and darks are, and setting your pencil almost horizontal to the paper, make sweeping little strokes to shade in the shadows and leave bare paper for the lights.

Feeling like you want to take it further?  Get yourself a fine-tipped artist felt pen - Faber Castell makes good ones - and try copying the lines of a little piece of one of these Leonardo da Vinci drawings.

1. This Caricature (from about 1490) is one of many drawings Leonardo did depicting the people of his day and age in a grotesque manner. He was as intrigued by deformity as by the ideal proportions of the human body, as these drawings attest.

1. Drapery 1 (around 1470). We have a few studies of drapery that da Vinci realized as preparatory work for later paintings.  This represents the fall of fabric on a standing figure.

3.  Drapery 2 (around 1470). Although done in grey tempera (egg-based paint) and painted with a brush, this drapery study - one of the most famous Leonardo da Vinci drawings - of fabric falling on a seated figure, is nevertheless ideal for practice with charcoal or a graphite pencil.

4. Drapery 3 (around 1470). In this drawing, Leonardo represented once more the shapes of the curves of a robe worn by a standing model. Nevertheless, this time, he chose to highlight the drapery around the legs, as indicated by the fact that the model's arm is not as clearly drawn as the rest of the body.

5. These Flowers (around 1490) were drawn by Leonardo using pen and ink. This drawing attests not only to his great attention to detail, but his fascination for the natural world.

6. Study for a Horse (around 1490) is a silverpoint study did in preparation for a giant equestrian statue projet - which was never completed in his lifetime. The muscles are well developed, as well as a testing of the horse's different movements to find the right position for the statue, like so many freeze frames.

7. The Vitruvian Man (around 1490) is one of the most famous Leonardo da Vinci drawings. Done with pen and ink, it represents the perfect geometrical proportions of the human being (the text above and below the drawing is a very detailed description of such). Da Vinci based this exercise on a treatise by the early Roman architect Vitruvius.

8. Nude Male Back (around 1490) bears witness to da Vinci's great interest in anatomy.  At his time nudes were depicted only rarely, and female nudes even less so - hence, men served as models for female subjects.

9.  Portrait (around 1490). Some scholars believe that for this drawing da Vinci did not precisely reproduce the model before him, but realized it as a kind of caricature.

Know and love Leonardo da Vinci...

Scroll down to have a look at a number of da Vinci drawings. 

If you want to open up the gallery, double click on the first image and they all will open at once.

da Vinci, The Vitruvian Man

Go to "Famous Artists Gallery home page" from "Leonardo da Vinci Drawings"

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