Review of “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” The National Gallery. On Leonardo’s Drawing and Painting of Faces, Skin, Nature and Figures, Techniques and the Character of Leonardo.

by Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky

On January 7, I was able to visit the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition in London’s National Gallery. This was a really interesting opportunity for me to see many drawings and a selection of paintings  close up. I felt  that having gone to art school and having gone through the process of making oil paintings and many drawings, I could understand some things about Leonardo’s personality and interests from the decisions he made when making his work. I would love to know what other people make of my impressions as I may be very wrong about some things but I wanted to get my impressions down while they were fresh in my mind.


First of all, seeing Leonard’s sketchbooks split into individual framed pages gave me a strangely sad feeling. I think this was because the drawings appear to me very much like a workbook- someone trying to work out problems with compositions, plan architectural vistas or experiment with the geometry (particularly which angle to present shapes from). If you could see  these drawings in the order in which they were made, you would see his mind working through  ideas (like crossings- out on an essay). The setting of the exhibition was sterile and felt less sympathetic than the exhibitions of Leonardo I have seen in Italy.

Drawing Faces

I have always thought that one of the distinctive things about Leonardo is that his line is almost always perfect. But when I looked at the drawings, which are often pencil traced over in pen and ink, it is is clear that he is often more hesitant and slow around the nose and chin (hard parts to draw correctly) and that he likes to draw in the profile first, then add the eye, and lastly quick hatch marks to give a bit of tone where later he will give a 3D effect through the special way he paints skin. Hair, I believe, he adds last of all as he seems to enjoy making the marks for this very much, and these look less “tight”.

The drawings of faces seem as if they are at least partially invented and reminded me of cartoons, caricatures or theatre archetypes. For example, the old men, grotesques and facial studies are so graphic and reduced to so few indicating lines- the minimum he needs to make them seem convincing- that they become not like a real person (even when it is a portrait of a real person) but about producing the essence of charater-outline.


It’s interesting that sometimes in Leonardo’s chest and shoulder studies, the breasts of the women and their cleavage is wrong or unconvincing (often too high). The faces of the women are so androgynous as to ressemble beautiful and pure young men, whom we know Leonardo loved. Leonardo’s women seem both noble and gentle  (Virgin of the rocks) but exuding the innocence of a young girl or boy. I think his women are in essence more like young boys and beauty-objects rather than sexual objects.


If you arranged in ranks his babies to teenage portraits to old men, there is a ‘family’ ressemblance.  There is a generic look. In that way, it seems unimportant to differentiate the individual It is the other way round; individuality  feeds into his way of drawing faces. I think this is because he is much more concerned with the impact of the composition than in representation. These images are  more about creating a spectacle and locking the viewer to the spot. The strangeness of the images comes in the contradiction that they appear both photographic (because of the light and the correct relationships of lines) and fantastical because the face is translated into Leonardo’s simplified and softened facial template.


Leonardo clearly mastered a technique of painting skin to make it appear 3D, glowing and to evoke the sense of ‘a living thing’. When you get up close to the surface of the painting the surface is extremely flat, with few visible brush marks. Outlines and underpainting invoke the sense of being “filled- in”, so that what you are looking at feels like the dramatising of the drawing. For instance, in ‘Lady with an Ermine’, beads become patterns of flat circle’s. It reminds me of Vermeer’s technique of creating images, that seem to breakup in front of your eyes when you are close to the suface into flat shapes and patterns ,and as you stand back ,the image starts to “pop out” into three dimensions. Not quite ‘tromp-l’oeil’ , but  a more  filmatic way of manipulating your perception of the light, so that you believe what you are seeing. Adding light by means of glazes, white washes and minute patches of darkness creates contrast to convince your eye that something is in the space in front of you . We know Leonardo experimented a great deal with the formulas for the paints he made or with the pigments he used, with the glazes, with the times between applying glazes.In this exhibition, we can see in Ambrogio de  Predis’s  own painting (he assisted Leonardo, especially in the second ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ ) that he uses a Leonardesque way of painting skin (no doubt knowing Leonardo’s technique).  Charles Nicoll states:

The later, London version of the painting has a  very different mood. It is more austere; the faces have a pale waxy sheen; it has a flatter, sadder, more reclusive beauty. If the Paris version is crepuscular in tone, this one has the harder edge of moonlight.’

(Leonardo da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind)

I wouldn’t be surprised if Leonardo saved certain chemicals and irridecent pigments only for the shapes where he has “applied” the skin to the under drawing.

Nature and Figures

Leonardo’s spirituality cannot exactly be located in any doctrine.  He was interested in Plato’s ideas about the soul. He kept  dogs and cats, was vegetarian and did not like to wear skins and loved nature. He uses tiny brushes to paint in the leaves and petals of the narcissi in the London Virgin of the Rocks and this is a dense, labour- intensive work. He seems to have taken much longer painting in these details than parts of the bodies. He was clearly fixated on this subject matter, particularly how leaves and petals compose themselves into patterns. The rocks, the sky, the flowers and grasses are very tonally similar and then the central placement of the figures in the foreground again brings your eye onto the skin of the figures, who once  again could all be the same person or members of the same family with the  same skin tone. It is as if the figures become set in nature, like a gem in a ring. He sees humanity- rather than raised up to the “divine”- as part of nature’s continuum.

Reading the paintings

To me, these paintings, even though often religious in subject matter, are more about nature and the dramatic and theatrical possibilities of painting, than trying to communicate a religious power. This exhibition, in it’s accompanying film, talked about Leonardo’s “Idealisation” of figures and raising the human  to ” being divine”. I disagree with this. My impression was that like  a Shakespeare play, the stories of St. Jerome in the Wilderness and the Virgin of the Rocks are storylines which are given to Leonardo as his brief (in fact, Leonardo in the first Virgin of the Rocks does not abide by his contract with the Confraternity). When he receives his storyline, he then makes many drawings working out the composition and movement of the figures and most notably, the graphical way in which the shapes fit together on the page. He seems more interested in the perspective, depth and geometry of the composition than in the symbolism. I think he is enjoying moving the shapes of the figures and the props (or animals!) around until the most dramtic  arrangement of the image is created. It reminds me very much of the Italian Pageantry with which Leonardo was involved ( SEE the previous blog on Leonardo)  designing sets and costumes, because these compositions seem to be about drama in an heightened atmosphere. His interest in using light to create a dramatic effect reminds me of the  candle and fire -lit  performances . Some of the Leonardo faces remind me of Commedia dell’arte  masks.

Leonardo wrote that there were four types of light: ‘The lights which may illuminate opaque bodies are of four kinds. These are: diffused light as that of the atmosphere [… ]And Direct, as that of the sun […] The third is Reflected light; and there is a 4th which is that which passes through [translucent] bodies, as linen or paper or the like.’


(from Leonardo techniques online)

“Verdaccio Underpainting

Verdaccio is a style of underpainting where tonal values are established in a monochrome, greenish-gray hue before overpainting additional colors. Verdaccio is especially effective for creating realistic flesh tones in oil painting, as it captures the appearance of veins under the skin and cool shadows when later covered with transparent reds and earth tone colors. Leonardo da Vinci is known to have used verdaccio in his work, as can be seen in partially finished paintings such as “The Adoration of the Magi.”


Sfumato, an Italian term, translates to “vanished or evaporated.” In contrast with the Florentine school of painters who heavily outlined their subjects, da Vinci perfected the technique of blurring and softening edges to be virtually imperceptible. This approach heightens the realism of the image, as Mona’s face gently curves and fades into her soft hair, and her shoulders gently round to disappear into the background. To achieve this effect, da Vinci chose a uniform palette of mid-tone colors and avoided the most luminous paints for bright features. With heavy blending, the painting appears to the viewer as if from behind a cloud of smoke.


Glazing was another technique, besides choice of tonal palette, through which Leonardo da Vinci achieved his sfumato effects and realism. Glazing is the application of multiple thin, transparent layers of paint over an already painted surface. Glazing allows an artist to achieve extremely subtle variations in color and shading, without hard edges and brushstrokes to distract from the appearance of realism. Scientists studying the “Mona Lisa” have found up to 30 layers of glaze on areas of her skin, some only a few micrometers thick. Using multiple glazes also helps add to the sense of depth in the background and shadowed areas of the painting.


Leonardo da Vinci is credited with introducing the idea of chiaroscuro to the art world. Chiaroscuro is described as the use of light and dark to define three-dimensional shapes, where tone and value dominates over color and hue. He believed in dressing his figures in light colored clothing so as to help them stand out from the darker background, creating variety in bright and shadowed forms. Leonardo achieved a unity of tone by keeping every colored object within a limited range of values, unlike other artists who would vary hue and contrast. Later artists such as Caravaggio would take chiaroscuro to extremes for dramatic effect, but da Vinci used the technique carefully to reinforce his subtle realism.

Obsessive and Precise

Leonardo’s drawings- especially the very dense drawings  drawn in charcoal first and then overdrawn in ink, so they are almost hard to understand- show an obsessiveness. He kept some tiny notebooks in which his handwriting is miniscule, backwards in code and fastidiously neat (although he wrote in mirror script, he was left handed and this may have been for convenience rather than to make his work secretive although he loved riddles. He loved small marks and tiny details, like the bulbous end of a nose indicated through the tiniest dash- it was at this scale which he is clearly most immersed in the zone of drawing. You have the impression of a man who was obsessed with problem solving, understanding how machines worked, how nature “worked” . I imagine that if he had been alive now, he might have been an engineer or an architect. I think his real passion lies in complicated detailed geometry. He was more emotionally invested in the detailed investigation of “things”.

The Last Supper

The final part of the exhibition focuses on the restoration of Leonardo’s egg tempera painting of ‘The Last Supper’, not originally a fresco but in a new Leonardo technique. It has now been entirely “restored” or painted over. Originally  painted on a primed, dry surface, plastered over stone, the painting is said to have deteriorated and been ruined within 20 years of it’s creation. My grandfather  remembered that when he was stationed in Italy in World War II,  it was difficult to make out the remnants of the painting which had been used in the past for target practice.

The restoration, is my opinion, is crude and completely ruins what was left of Leonardo’s original. The main thing that surprised me is how heavy  and enlarged the figures on the right seem compared to the original depiction where both groupings of figures surrounding the Christ figure seem much more balanced in size and scale. Again, the National Gallery talks about the symbolism behind the figures and relationships with Jesus – and I’m sure there is much symbolism embued into the painting, at the very least as was the custom in acknowledgement of your commission or the wishes of your patron. But I believe this painting was meant to be more about the visual impact of the composition, and the way the narrow perspective draws your eye immediately onto the Christ figure. It again echoes the setting of the figures in the Virgin of the Rocks, central in the frame of her surroundings. Christ in this depiction, becomes the most important focal point visually, and he is exactly in front of the vanishing point in the persepctive, as if he is the first and last thing you see each time . This has a dramatic “cliffhanger” effect. The viewers know what is coming in the story, as Jesus will be arrested and taken away to be killed after the moment of this picture. It is the tipping point  and we see Him perfectly  framed in the love of the Disciples but ominously excluded from both groups too.Here we cannot take our eyes from Him. We cannot warn him. The figure is both alone and knowing his own fate. In this terrible moment,  his perfect placement  at the centre of his earthly kingdom is aboutl be destroyed.


This exhibition left me with an overwhelming sense of sadness. I thought there was so much of an artist’s work and personality before me, and yet so little and  so long gone.

I  kept wishing that there was much more about Italian theatre, culture and the life of artists at that time in the accompanying text , because Leonardo is so essentially Italian.   When I have seen Leonardo’s work exhibited in Italy ,I felt that it made much more sense. I think it is a big mistake in this exhibition that they don’t capture any of the mood of the work in the way it is presented. The drawings are  presented

out of chronological order, and sometimes The Curator has guessed (and presented it as “very likely” that certain drawings lead to bits of paintings ( like one sketch of a dog’s paw predict the paws of the ermine in the Lady with an Ermine.) I don’t think the paws look  alike at all- the ermine’s are more like a lion’s foot, the dog’s feet appear humble and humourous.

My advice if you have a chance to see the exhibition- which is entirely sold out now and closes on Feb 5th. Don’t view it with the tape and headphones as it seemed nearly everyone was doing. Engage   with the work directly and see what occurs to you. Leonardo is so direct and dramatic, engage with the work on a intuitive and visual level.

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