Leonardo da Vinci draughtsman: the studies on canvas

An in-depth look at the drawings on linen canvas made by Leonardo da Vinci: they served as exercises for studying drapery. Let's find out about two of them!

One of the lesser-known strands of the great Leonardo da Vinci’s production is drawing on canvas, which, although not practiced as frequently as drawing on paper, was nevertheless sometimes experimented with by the artist. One of the first biographers of Leonardo to describe his process is Giorgio Vasari, who, in the chapter of his Lives devoted to the genius of Vinci, writes: “because his [Leonardo’s] profession wanted it to be painting, he studied a great deal in natural portraits, and sometimes in making medals, of earthen figures, and on those he put soft rags buried, and then with patience he put himself to portray them over certain very thin canvases of rensa or used draperies, and he worked them in black and white with the tip of the brush, which was a miraculous thing, as some of them still testify, which I have by his hand, in our book of drawings.”

What did Leonardo da Vinci do, in essence? He procured, or created himself, terracotta models (the “earthen figures” mentioned by Vasari), covered them with wet, earth-covered cloths so that they would adhere better to the mannequin and thus create more natural folds (the “buried soft rags”), after which he used rensa or linen cloths (“pannilini,” i.e., linen cloths) and, soaking his brush in ink, fixed on the canvas what he saw before him. The rensa mentioned by Vasari is nothing more than a fine, very fine linen fabric named after the city of Reims, France, the place of origin of rensa. It was used mostly in the production of high-quality linens, but because of its ability to soak up ink with great ease, and because of the precision with which artists could work on this medium, rensa was also often used for drawing. The use of linen was also due to the fact that, compared to paper, it is obviously much more durable, and lends itself better to the use of tempera: artists could therefore experiment, on linen, with effects to be applied later to the finished painting. In Verrocchio’s workshop, where Leonardo completed his apprenticeship, drawing on linen canvas was widely used (although paper still remained by far the preferred medium): however, few surviving examples of studies produced with this technique remain.

In fact, only sixteen sketches on linen canvas attributed to Verrocchio’s workshop have been preserved. At the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci. 1452-1519 currently underway in Milan (Palazzo Reale) until July 19 and produced by Skira together with the City of Milan, it is possible to observe two examples, created by the hand of Leonardo. Let’s see them both, in order to better understand how they were produced, for what purposes, and why Leonardo sometimes preferred linen to paper. With a necessary clarification: not all critics agree in attributing the drawings to Leonardo. Unfortunately, there are no documents that can confidently certify their authorship (and they probably never existed), and the history of their passage through the various collections is often terse and convoluted.

Leonardo da Vinci, Studio di panneggio
Leonardo da Vinci, Study of drapery (c. 1470; Brush and gray-brown ink raised with white lead on linen cloth prepared in gray-brown; 283 x 192 mm; London British Museum). Click on the image to enlarge it.
The first is a Study of drapery for a kneeling woman, preserved in the British Museum and dating from around 1470, that is, when the artist was still an apprentice in the workshop of his master, Verrocchio: at that time, Leonardo was just eighteen years old. It was made through the use of a brush soaked in gray-brown ink, with white lead inserts. White lead, also known as lead white, is a pigment that, given its color, an almost pure white, was widely used for highlights in drawings, that is, to bring out areas of light on dark preparations: papers prepared so that they would have dark backgrounds, or a linen canvas with a gray-brown preparation such as the one we are talking about. The British Museum study shows a large figure of which, however, we do not see the uncovered body parts, which are barely hinted at (note the head at the top), but we intuit from the folds of the robe, rendered with admirable tactile sense and with excellent study of shadows and light, that there is a body beneath the draperies. The folds were rendered with gray-brown ink while, as mentioned earlier, the parts affected by light were done with the use of white lead. The effect we get is that of a very realistic figure, when compared to those drawn on other materials: linen lends itself well to capturing the subtle transitions of hues and contrasts between light and shadow, and the impression one gets, especially when observing the drawing live, is that of being in front of a work endowed with great modernity.

As can be clearly seen, drawing on linen canvas meant obtaining a result very similar to painting, certainly closer to the final result than the same study made on paper.This is why Leonardo, as well as other artists working in Verrocchio’s workshop, used this technique. Some scholars have hypothesized that these works were not preparatory studies for paintings, but were simply exercises that were meant to be used by students to become familiar with the depiction of drapery. Here, then, is another argument that would explain why linen was used instead of paper: and then, since it was a technique closer to painting, it was more demanding than drawing on paper, and therefore particularly suitable for preparing pupils.

Leonardo da Vinci, Studio di panneggio
Leonardo da Vinci, Drapery Study (c. 1470; Brush and sepia-gray ink raised with white lead on linen canvas prepared in gray; 240 x 193 mm; Paris, Fondation Custody, Collection Frits Lugt)
In support of the hypothesis that these are exercises, art historians have pointed to the fact that almost none of the surviving studies can be traced back to a finished work (although there is one in the Louvre that looks instead like a preparatory study for a work, namely Domenico Ghirlandaio’s San Giusto Altarpiece: the painter was, like Leonardo, a pupil of Verrocchio). Exercises also appear to be the drawing in the British Museum and for the other on display at the Milan exhibition, a Drapery Study, also dating from about 1470, kept in Paris at the Fondation Custodia. Also at the exhibition, the drawings are both presented as self-contained exercises that were meant to help the apprentice painters working in Verrocchio’s workshop learn how to depict drapery and accurately render the light and shadow of the folds. The Parisian drawing depicts the drapery of a seated figure: as in the London one, we see no details of the body, except for a barely noticeable foot. But, after all, the aim of such exercises was precisely to put the pupils in a position to make it look as if there were a body under the folds of a robe. And they had to succeed in doing so as realistically as possible.

Leonardo da Vinci, I due studi
Leonardo da Vinci’s two studies on display in Milan. In placing them side by side, we have tried to respect the actual proportions between the two drawings as much as possible.

It was mentioned just above that critics disagree in attributing the drawings to Leonardo. Moreover, according to many scholars, the works that make up the corpus of drawings on canvas attributable to Verrocchio’s workshop would have been made by different artists. Among those who have argued for an attribution to Leonardo da Vinci we must mention Françoise Viatte, who, on the occasion of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York between 1989 and 1990, where the drawings were exhibited, asserted that, according to her opinion, all the drawings in the group should be attributed to the hand of Leonardo: this is mainly because of their very high precision, which no artist of the time, not even those who studied with him from Verrocchio, was able to achieve. Especially if we think about the fact that others such as Ghirlandaio and Lorenzo di Credi were, at the time, “students” like Leonardo, but the genius from Vinci mastered the techniques of painting as if he had already been an expert artist: something that his contemporaries were not yet able to do.

Unfortunately, there are no elements to arrive at definitive conclusions. But it is unquestionable that, at least the two drawings on display at the Milan exhibition, show a finesse of execution, precision and rendering that only a great artist can offer. And the result is innovative and surprising: one only has to see it to realize it.... !

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