Do you remember that strange left-handed, long-haired kid in study hall, the one who could do that stupid backward "mirror handwriting" and drew all the time? The one whose father was a notary public and kept trying to set up his kid with apprenticeships and after-school jobs, the one whose mother wasn't married to his dad and lived outside of town on some farm? The one who could hardly read but who drew skulls and muscles and forts and dogs' feet, and wasted his time designing innovative crossbows and shields? The kid you're thinking of probably wasn't named Leonardo da Vinci. But the kid we're talking about was.
Of course, the real Leonardo (1452- 1519) was far more than a case of nerdily arrested development. He was business-like enough to belong to the painters guild and run a workshop. He could charm kings and dukes into big commissions in spite of a reputation for never finishing them--sometimes because his experimental paint started peeling as soon as it was dry. And those drawings of his were good: imaginative, delicate, probing, skillful and just plain beautiful. When the august Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shows them--as it'll be doing through March 30--up to 8,000 people a day file reverently through the necessarily dimly lighted galleries, peering over shoulders and squinting through reflections on protective glass.
Leonardo produced just 15 paintings, many uncompleted, and not one of his ambitious sculpture projects was ever finished. But he cranked out thousands of drawings in every medium from ink to chalk--more than 4,000 survive--and collectors snapped them up even during his lifetime. Leonardo was so famous for them, in fact, that when he returned to Florence in 1501 after an absence of 17 years at the Sforza court in Milan, all he had to do was exhibit the cartoon (that is, the full-size preparatory drawing, now lost) for his planned painting "The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne and a Lamb" in order to pull crowds into his home.
The man whose name has become a synonym for genius was not, however, an entirely faultless draftsman. (Who is?) His babies often look as if they weigh as much as their mothers, he doesn't do feet too well and his grotesque old people's heads are too big. But in his study of Christ carrying the cross, for example, Leonardo gracefully captures Jesus' agonized dignity in just a few squiggles of metalpoint. And in his drawings he almost singlehandedly invented the modern technique of "brainstorming"--getting quickly down on paper whatever comes into one's head and leaving judgments for later. In doing so, he dragged art out of the morbidly self-censorial Middle Ages. Leonardo's best feat of brainstorming is the illustrated stream-of-consciousness notebook "Codex Leicester," which is on loan to the show from that billionaire brainstormer Bill Gates.
The moral of all this is that maybe you should listen when some geeky kid stands too close to you and starts giving you free advice, such as this: "With slight strokes take a note in a little book which you should always carry with you. It should be of tinted paper, that it may not be rubbed out, and when full exchange the old book for a new one; since these things should be preserved with great care." Chances are you're no genius, but a little brainstorming might get you closer.