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5 Sketching Secrets of Leonardo Da Vinci

by Brian Sullivan
4 min read
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In his lifetime, Leonardo da Vinci filled over 13,000 pages of his journals with notes and drawings. Here’s how you can improve your sketching and paper prototyping abilities by adopting some of his methods.

You can improve your sketching and paper prototyping abilities by adopting some of the methods used by Leonardo da Vinci in his sketchbooks. Leonardo was a prolific sketcher, filling his journals with over 13,000 pages of notes and drawings. These five sketching lessons drawn from his practices will make you a better thinker.

Lesson #1: Sketch Your Ideas Out 4-5 Times

Leonardo frequently sketched things multiple times, showing an object from different perspectives or different stages of development. His different sketches of flowers show some with leaves and others without leaves. Some of the flowers are budding, while other flowers are mature.

  • To better understand something, sketch it out multiple times.
  • Quantity leads to quality.
  • Explore from multiple angles and different stages of development.

Lesson #2: Use Annotations in Your Sketches

Beside most of Leonardo’s sketches you will find annotations about the subject of the sketch. The annotations are used to clarify the object being studied. For example, the sketch called “The Study of Arms and Shoulders,” which was part of an anatomy study to help him with brushstrokes for The Last Supper, shows four different views of the shoulder with annotation between the arms.

  • Leave room for annotations in your sketches.
  • Your annotations might answer a question for someone that sees your sketch.
  • Your annotations are memory joggers for you.

Lesson #3: Collaborate With Others When You Sketch

Leonardo made his sketches on his own, but he collaborated with other people to flesh out the finer details. Leonardo’s sketches of human anatomy were a collaboration with Marcantonio della Torre, an anatomist from the University of Pavia. Their collaboration is important because it marries art with science.

The agreement was for Leonardo to provide immaculate sketches, while Marcantonio would verify the drawings for accuracy and completeness of human anatomy. Marcantonio agreed to have Leonardo’s drawings published. Ironically, one year later, Marcantonio would die of the Black Death. Luckily, Leonardo’s sketches remained.

  • In general, show your work to other people.
  • Collaborate with others when you sketch.
  • Collaborate with someone that will make your sketches better (more accurate, more imaginative).

Lesson #4: Engage Your Imagination

Leonardo drew from sources beyond just nature and human anatomy. His sketches include civil engineering projects (bridges, roads, maps), military objects (parachute, airplane, tank, machine gun), and robots (crank-driven knight armor). In some cases, these imaginative objects would not be created for almost 500 years later. The key is to engage your imagination.

Leonardo used his imagination because he was curious. Leonardo once wrote: “Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?” Da Vinci was very curious about flying. In his sketchbook, there’s a page titled, “Flying machines. The Flight of Genius!” On this page are sketches for a parachute, airplane, and glider. Some scholars have postulated that Leonardo’s study of birds helped him with the design of the glider.

  • Sketch beyond your comfort zone (quantity helps you here).
  • Sketch multiple solutions around a problem area (e.g., flight).
  • Let ideas percolate, then revisit your sketches.

Lesson #5: Look for New Combinations

When he wanted novel ideas, Leonardo engaged his imagination for a revolutionary idea (e.g., a tank or a parachute). At other times, he wanted to build upon existing ideas (e.g., bridges and ladder) with incremental changes by force-fitting different concepts together.

Da Vinci sketched a new kind of ladder meant for scaling walls by soldiers. Existing ladders leaned unfixed against walls, easily pushed over by defenders of a castle or fortress. Leonardo made a few incremental changes by using spikes and metal poles to become “rungs” for an enhanced new version of the ladder.

More importantly, Da Vinci used a rudimentary form of the Cornell method of note-taking. Beyond the annotated notes for each individual sketch, Leonardo included keywords for other ideas and cross-references to other sketches. Da Vinci scholars believe this approach would allow Leonardo to organize his sketches and review existing ones to seek new combinations for incremental changes.

As a designer, Leonardo offers several lessons here. First, when you sketch, provide enough detail for someone to understand. It is a sketch, which you can later revise. You need to get your ideas down. Second, you should group similar ideas together. When you group them together, you will see a natural convergence towards a common vision. Plus, you may only need a small mash-up to incrementally innovate. Third, catalog your ideas so you can seek out other combinations later. With search technology these days, you do not need to use a Cornell method of note-taking. You can insert keywords into any saved file; search for a keyword and see what sketches appear. The important thing is to develop the habit of cataloging for the future so you can make new combinations. Just as Leonardo engaged his imagination, he also sought out new combinations—building on existing concepts to come up with something different.

  • Seek new combinations with your individual sketches
  • Catalog your sketches to reuse them in the future
  • Seek combinations from your previous sketches


You can improve your sketching and idea generation by following these secrets from Leonardo Da Vinci. Hidden within his notebooks are a variety of ideas on painting, sketching, architecture, and life (in general). These are my takeaways from reviewing his work. What do you think?

post authorBrian Sullivan

Brian Sullivan, Brian Sullivan is the Usability Principal at Sabre.  He is the founder of the Big Design Conference.  He has been working in UX for over 10 years.  He lives in Texas with his wife, son, and cat (who owns them all).


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