Walter Isaacson on Leonardo’s “sharpness of eye”

His curiosity was aided by the sharpness of his eye, which focused
on things that the rest of us glance over.   One night he saw lightning
flash behind some buildings, and for that instant they looked smaller,
so he launched a series of experiments and controlled observations to
verify that objects look smaller when surrounded by light and look
larger in the mist or dark.”  When he looked at things with one eye
closed, he noticed that they appeared less round than when seen with
both eyes, so he went on to explore the reasons why.

Kenneth Clark referred to Leonardo’s “inhumanly sharp eye.” It’s
a nice phrase, but misleading.  Leonardo was human.  The acuteness
of his observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. In-
stead, it was a product of his own effort.  That’s important, because it
means that we can, if we wish, not just marvel at him but try to learn
from him by pushing ourselves to look at things more curiously and

In his notebook, he described his method almost like a trick
for closely observing a scene or object: look carefully and separately at
each detail.  He compared it to looking at the page of a book, which is
meaningless when taken in as a whole and instead needs to be looked
at word by word. Deep observation must be done in steps: “If you
wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with
the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you
have the first well Fixed in memory.”

Another gambit he recommended for “giving your eye good practice” at observations was to play this game with friends: one person draws a line on a wall, and the others stand a distance away and try to cut a blade of straw to the exact length of the line. “He who has come nearest with his measure to the length of the pattern is the winner.” 

Leonardo’s eye was especially sharp when it came to observing motion. “‘the dragonfly flies with four wings, and when those in front are raised those behind are lowered,” he found. Imagine the effort it took to watch a dragonfly carefully enough to notice this.

–    Walter Isaacson. Leonardo DaVinci. Simon and Schuster, 2017. Page 179.


Spend a few hours trying to draw something accurately from life and Leonardo’s comments about seeing the details will ring true to you.   Sketching used to be one of the practices of a well-rounded education.  That seems a century ago; it isn’t any longer.   So when you walk by someone in the park who is sitting with a sketchbook, looking intently at a tree or a stream, your modern sensibility interprets that as an effort to render an exact likeness…your thoughts might be “oh, I could never do that, to get something on the page to look like something in life, I so admire that effort.”  Then you pass by.

But the sketcher knows that a realistic image is not the point.  (Though accuracy matters.)  The point, what is actually happening when a sketcher is working in his book, is he is trying to see.   Drawing is a mode of seeing.  You actually see more because of the need to reproduce what you see, and the experience of seeing more and more and more feels like an awakening.

“More and more and more…” – again, the modern sensibility, reading these words, interprets them as an experience of finer and finer analysis.   ‘More” means more granular, more information about smaller and smaller parts.   This is partly true (and no doubt some of what Leonardo was saying), but the experience we have while sketching is an awakening vision in multiple directions at once, not just toward the smaller detail, but also color, angles, large shapes of light and dark (“value”), and the unique gesture of the object as a whole.   And more.  It is an experience of analytical honing and of wholistic expansion, together.

All this is what I mean by:  “Drawing is a mode of seeing.”

Omit Needless Words?

We’re all told to omit needless words, that this is the key to good writing.  Simple, we’re told.  Just cut those extra or latinate words and you’ll find under the fluff the sinews of virile prose.   And the connotation is that this is almost a scientific exercise, one which yields objective truth which multiple observers would be able to reproduce after starting with the same raw material.   Occam’s Razor amputates opinions and incises down to reality, and all rational people agree when the results are right.  We’re told.  

But “needless” means different things to different editors.   Of course, it means “words that add nothing to the meaning or clarity”, but the individual editor’s worldview will define “meaning” and “clarity”, perhaps unconsciously.   Since each sentence emanates undertones and overtones of flavor as each word brings ancient seasons to the stew, no editor escapes value judgements about the validity of the slight tones in the ear or after-flavors on the tongue.  No editor escapes his own internalized set of meanings as he judges whether a word works.   

As you write or try to make writing better, yours or others, you talk metaphysics.


I knew a man who had heard “omit needless words” and he wielded it.  He was a bit of a reductionist in his daily life, I thought.   He seemed to have little use for any of what I would call the intangibles.   He was an orthopedic surgeon, so had something of a scientific background  (though surgeons, in my experience, are surprisingly anecdotal thinkers).   Befitting his surgeon’s task-oriented temperament, he had little use for not only religion but art and humanities.  He liked astronomy.   You might think my calling him “reductionist” is just my bias against his apparent agnosticism,  but we never talked about religion and yet I still saw in him the reductionist tone.     

He liked to reduce prose to only the needed words.  In his work he would have occasion to approve documents such as hospital policies and patient education handouts.   He would cut ruthlessly till the sentences were short as Hemingway’s, and smile a satisfied smile.  He wanted everyone to learn this skill from him.   English teachers were his secret admirers, he was sure.  

I fancied myself a wordsmith and understood the principle, and generally agreed with it.  We’ve all felt the relief of reading the shaped-up paragraph, half as long as it was, and now both lighter and stronger.  But there was something about this surgeon’s scalpel on prose that bothered me.  I wanted to be loyal to Strunk and White and couldn’t imagine contradicting the hallowed Occam, so I thought it might just be me.   His product seemed skeletal.  It took me years to figure it out, but finally it dawned:  he cuts the overtones, nuance, and patina of language as if any letter added to subject and object is “fluff”.   He is an editor in search of the mathematical equation which is the reality beneath the smokescreen of words.   He sees the world as a substructure of impersonal logic draped in a fog of rhetoric.   i did not see the world the same way, so our conflict of visions was triggered, for me, in the simple act of killing an adjective.  

Nothing is not metaphysics.    



As If For The First Time

I’ve wanted to name the connection between drawing and composing poetry.

Drawing is a mode of seeing.  We don’t see, then draw; we don’t draw what we see; we see by drawing.   And we see, truly, only what we love.   So as we draw we fall in love with what we are seeing, and the movement of my hand, feeling inside my loving gaze, strengthens my love.

Love is always for the first time.   This is not just a hallmark saying, it is a literal truth.   As love escalates, the distinction between subject and object closes.  Vision becomes heightened until it is supernatural.   The lover sees but is no longer conscious of seeing; the lover and the beloved person or thing are one in vision.   As the distance between lover and beloved closes, it is not possible to retain any memory of previous moments, because memory is cognitive distance.  Love is always for the first time.

In the end each drawing is a new unique object:  the love of this artist for this thing in this instant.

In the same way, poetry is loving by words.   The poem is not about anything, it is a thing in and of itself.  This new thing is the love of this writer for this thing or person at this moment; it is their love reified from ethereal  into words, shaking their manes.   No distance remains between the vision, the thought, the feeling, and the emitted words.   When the poet reads back over last evening’s work, he does not remember how he wrote it.

We love by drawing, and we love by poetry.   As if, every time, for the first time.

The Second Moment of the Artist

Have you noticed it is exciting to start a painting, but you lose interest in the middle?  I argue that we never lose interest in a sound composition, whether we are the artist or just the spectator.   It is the geometric arrangement of lights and darks and lines of motion that capture our eye time after time as we walk through the gallery, even if we’ve seen the picture a thousand times before.   It never gets old.

If this is true, then when you lose interest in something you are working on, it can only be that the composition is not really the one you believe in.  Your compositional choices at the very beginning were a lapse into a second-hand, or borrowed,  aesthetic.  You are painting someone else’s picture.

The watercolorist Mary Whyte points out that it isn’t enough for the artist to simply feel something, even something forcefully, about the scene or the composition.  She must understand her reaction in a highly detailed way:  what, precisely, do I like about this specific sunset?  If the colors, what about the colors?  Haven’t I seen them before?  Why is this sunset different from every other sunset I’ve loved?

If I know myself deeply enough, I’ll be able to name (for a writer) or frame (a painter) the utterly unique quality of each aesthetic shiver.  “Thisness.”  This sunset, this flower, this smile on a child is different from all others.  But the truth is that the inner clarity to articulate Thisness to yourself is rare, even among hard-working artists.

I feel the first moment of delight from the inside, standing too close to the sensation to circumscribe it with intellect.  I feel  beauty wherever it is inside me that beauty feels, and my mind and heart are engaged in a unified feeling intellect.  But, caution:  in the second moment, distinct from the first, I will start making compositional choices, and it is likely that the precise element that delights me is ambiguously buried within the larger visual field in front of me.  It may be one shape in the clouds, one color bumping against another, or even a color that I’ve never seen before.  Whatever it is that caught my eye about this specific sunset is what the painting should be about.  It often is not.  It is surprisingly hard to know the precise, granular, unique object of delight in the second moment, the cognitive moment where I capture something useful about the sensation, as the first moment rapidly fades.   It is hard to know because, among other distractions, the subconscious offers memories of previous artists’ compositions.   Those subconscious templates will offer themselves as frames for your picture, and actually get in between you and the…Thisness.

This second moment might be only a nano-time from the first, the time of electrons between neurons, but it is so artistically distinct as to be a world apart.  We are fooled by how much fades in that split instant of time.   The mind immediately begins to work, and it is beginning in this second moment that I believe the entire inherited store of images comes rushing in to supply conventional templates for ordering the feeling and the memory of the image.   Most compositions actually belong to someone else that the artist doesn’t know.   So: boredom, halfway through the painting.  The good news is that you are not bored by your own creativity (impossible); you are bored by the ghost images obscuring your own creative vision.

I don’t want to sound too Zen a note here.  I believe many are bewitched at this point by the tone of Zen which has tinctured the literature of artistic practice, and head in the exact wrong direction.  The mind is not the enemy.  Nor does it it necessarily falsify the original vision.  It is a dead end to get this first flash of insight and move into the second moment  at all suppressing or subverting the mind, or in any way treat the compositional impulse as some corrupted addition to the initial vision.  The mind is not the enemy, the compositional impulse is not the enemy; the enemy is to not know your own subconscious store.  The enemy is alienation; alienation is when we are moved or affected by internal factors that we do not know.   The enemy is not that the mind is too active; it is that it is not active enough, not rigorous, clear, and disciplined enough.

The First Moment is very “zen”; every moment after is the opposite.  These two distinct moments with their distinct movements each have their own set of practices, and they feel – this is crucial – opposite.      To confuse the two is to hopelessly confuse your own self.  The key to the First Moment is to know nothing.  The key to the Second Moment is to know yourself.

This First Moment / Second Moment pattern has been recognized in widely disparate bodies of literature.   For example,  Wordsworth famously described poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.”  I’m using different words – “delight” and “composition”, and so on,  to translate into the language of the visual artist, but I think this is the same double movement of the soul.  Wordsworth’s “emotion” is the First Moment, the instant of “inspiration” (how I hate that word.)  Wordsworth’s “recollected in tranquility” is the poet’s hard work in the study, in the Second Moment, and beyond.

Writers have developed their insights into the differences between these distinct internal operations, and the “How to write” books are full of un-alienation wisdom.    I can’t rehearse all that they know here, except to observe that what works in one stage of artistic response is the opposite of what works in the next.

Back to painting.   I believe as artists grow in their knowledge of themselves they prune non-essentials from the compositional frame.   As they come to see more clearly their own eyes they zoom in, and throw more and more out of the frame.  Now this not new advice.  “Simplify”, we are told in a hundred different ways.  But few realize the advice to “simplify” is not just a technique of composition, a matter of craft; it is a matter of soulcraft.  Know nothing, then know yourself, then, and only then  – forgive me for this – be the painting.   Workshop instructors would do well to consider that the key to composition is not “the golden mean” or “movement through the picture plane” or even “blocks of value”, but… moral courage.   When the artist loses interest before the work is done it is a sign he is working on someone else’s painting.

Every painter experiences how mysteriously hard it is to hear the counsel to “simplify” and then to do it.  There is a resistance.  There’s a stubborn resistance from within that puzzles most of us for years.

Practical advice:  if you can, sit perfectly still for 5 minutes and look at what caught your attention, doing nothing else.  Notice the track of your own eyes around the visual field.   Your own eye movements will draw the center of attention for you.   Wherever your gaze wanders, that and that alone is what interests you.   So draw or put the brush only on the one thing you like the most – it will amaze you how small it is – and then blow that up to fill your entire picture frame.  90% of what you see can be thrown away.   If you do this right, it will give you cold sweaty palms, like working without a net.  And that’s you that you finally feel.

I’m giving advice to artists, as if I actually know something.  I’m talking to myself.

Shape Of Wind In Lilac

The lilac leaf is not interesting aside from the wind, nor is the wind visible aside from the leaf, but the shape of the wind in the lilac will hold me here for hours.  It is the dance of the parts with each other, frozen in a moment, that we have the privilege to feel with our pencil.

We only feel it, darkly, like Helen Keller felt the hands of her teacher, groping with the pencil or the brush inside the swishing swirling world.

On Art Supplies

Great artists don’t talk much about their tools. The rest of us do, because we’re still discovering what our hands can do. Most of us never get to the end of this exploration of means – and that’s ok, because to create is its own reward, no matter what stage of development we find ourselves at.

But I think I see a shift in the biographies of great artists, a shift where they have found what their hands can do with the equipment that is available to them. Their attention is absorbed, then, not by means and tools but by creating an image truly conversant with the given images in the universe.

They finally, after a long brutal apprenticeship, lift their eyes.

Every sketch is a question about what God sees.

If you treat your sketchbook as a book of answers you’ll suffocate from the presence of the inner judge, who will demand a certain finished quality to those sketched answers.  No, see your pencil as a questioning stick.  It is a divining rod, doodling among the surface textures of what you see in front of you, stopping to drop deeper into the picture when it passes over the pixel that really pulls at your attention.

So your drawing is questioning and answering all at once and you are utterly given up to the process.  Whatever the page looks like at the end of the day is the right answer.

It might be that what God sees in the treeline at dusk is not what you see.  We are not pantheists.  But we are also not docetists; it is certain that your path to seeing what God sees runs through your own vision, and not around it.