Mastering Skill as a Foundation for Creative Work

Leonardo da Vinci resume

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses—especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

[Leonardo da Vinci]

In the early 1480s, Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci wrote a letter to Ludovico Sforza, then Duke of Milan including a list of his capabilities. Sforza was looking to employ military engineers, so da Vinci included minute details about his skills to that effect:

My Most Illustrious Lord,

Having now sufficiently seen and considered the achievements of all those who count themselves masters and artificers of instruments of war, and having noted that the invention and performance of the said instruments is in no way different from that in common usage, I shall endeavor, while intending no discredit to anyone else, to make myself understood to Your Excellency for the purpose of unfolding to you my secrets, and thereafter offering them at your complete disposal, and when the time is right bringing into effective operation all those things which are in part briefly listed below:

1. I have plans for very light, strong and easily portable bridges with which to pursue and, on some occasions, flee the enemy, and others, sturdy and indestructible either by fire or in battle, easy and convenient to lift and place in position. Also means of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

2. I know how, in the course of the siege of a terrain, to remove water from the moats and how to make an infinite number of bridges, mantlets and scaling ladders and other instruments necessary to such an enterprise.

3. Also, if one cannot, when besieging a terrain, proceed by bombardment either because of the height of the glacis or the strength of its situation and location, I have methods for destroying every fortress or other stranglehold unless it has been founded upon a rock or so forth.

4. I have also types of cannon, most convenient and easily portable, with which to hurl small stones almost like a hail-storm; and the smoke from the cannon will instill a great fear in the enemy on account of the grave damage and confusion.

5. Also, I have means of arriving at a designated spot through mines and secret winding passages constructed completely without noise, even if it should be necessary to pass underneath moats or any river.

6. Also, I will make covered vehicles, safe and unassailable, which will penetrate the enemy and their artillery, and there is no host of armed men so great that they would not break through it. And behind these the infantry will be able to follow, quite uninjured and unimpeded.

7. Also, should the need arise, I will make cannon, mortar and light ordnance of very beautiful and functional design that are quite out of the ordinary.

8. Where the use of cannon is impracticable, I will assemble catapults, mangonels, trebuckets and other instruments of wonderful efficiency not in general use. In short, as the variety of circumstances dictate, I will make an infinite number of items for attack and defense.

9. And should a sea battle be occasioned, I have examples of many instruments which are highly suitable either in attack or defense, and craft which will resist the fire of all the heaviest cannon and powder and smoke.

10. In time of peace I believe I can give as complete satisfaction as any other in the field of architecture, and the construction of both public and private buildings, and in conducting water from one place to another.

Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.

Moreover, work could be undertaken on the bronze horse which will be to the immortal glory and eternal honor of the auspicious memory of His Lordship your father, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

And if any of the above-mentioned things seem impossible or impracticable to anyone, I am most readily disposed to demonstrate them in your park or in whatsoever place shall please Your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility.

The letter worked. A decade later, Sfoza commissioned da Vinci to paint The Last Supper. The mural is in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan where I saw it many years ago.

Skill creates the necessary means for us to execute, to close the gap between our taste, what we see in our mind, and what we can make. “The more skill you have, the more sophisticated and accomplished your ideas can be,” says choreographer Twyla Tharp.

In The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, Twarp illustrates the value of skill with a story:

Pope Leo X heard that Leonardo da Vinci was experimenting with the formulas for varnishes instead of executing a painting. He declared, “This man will never do anything, for he begins thinking about the end before the beginning of his work.”

However, Leonardo understood that the better you know the nuts and bolts of your craft, the more fully you can express your talents.

The great painters are incomparable draftsmen. They also know how to mix their own paint, grind it, put in the fixative; no task is too small to be worthy of their attention.

Before we can create, we need to build our craft. In other words, to create more, we need to get better at it. It starts with “Perfect practice,” says Twarp. We also need to broaden our arsenal of skills to avoid becoming stale. Discipline is a skill, and everyone needs to develop it, no matter the type of work.

Discussing the power of the crossbow Leonardo da Vinci references doubling the degrees of “fury” through applied technique and dexterity in his notebooks. “You double your intensity with skill,” says Twarp. Before taking on a subject, da Vinci considered it from a variety of angles. “Leonardo's breadth of interests was remarkable. So was his ability to bounce back from one area of study to another and find relationships between them.”

To perfect our craft, we all need breadth —which we could achieve through a multidisciplinary approach to learning— as well as depth —achievable by thinking about the problem in minute detail.

For example, in his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci lists the various aspects of rivers and currents he intended to study:

Of the different rates of speed of currents from the surface of the water to the bottom.

Of the different cross slants between the surface and the bottom.

Of the different currents on the surface of the water.

Of the different currents on the bed of the rivers.

Of the different depths of the rivers.

Of the different shapes of the hills covered by the waters.

Where the water is swift at the bottom and not above.

Where the water is slow at the bottom and swift above.

Where it is slow below and above and swift in the middle.

Where the water in the rivers stretches itself out and where it contracts. Where it bends and where it straightens itself.

Where it penetrates evenly in the expanses of rivers and where unevenly. Where it is low in the middle and high at the sides.

Where it is high in the middle and low at the sides.

Where the current goes straight in the middle of the stream. Where the current winds, throwing itself on different sides.

Of the different slants in the descents of the water.

This level of detail comes from keen curiosity and observation. “By the time Leonardo had considered all these aspects, he understood rivers and was ready to make any creative use of their power and potential that might occur to him, whatever the context,” says Twarp.