Virgin of the Rocks

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Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks, 1483
By ETHAN DOSKEY

Frustrated by not being able to sketch anatomically-correct renditions of various dinosaurs from memory, like any dejected third grader would, I sought help from my mother. Fortunately, I went to the right person (not that I had many other options). As an art-grad, she wisely told me to simply "draw what I saw."

With a new-found purpose and motivation, I pulled out my encyclopedia of dinos, flipped straight to the velociraptor section, grabbed a few colored pencils, a sheet of paper, and drew with virtuoso-like confidence.  As I drew, I realized the vicious, feathered beast I was striving to replicate looked more and more like lop-sided meatloaf on legs. After this experience ended in tears, I thought that, like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's narrator in Le Petite Prince, I was not cut-out for the life of an artist anymore, and I retired my box of colored pencils.

Unlike my easily defeated juvenile-self, Leonardo made discoveries and set presidents in painting, anatomy, engineering, and mathematics in his studio in Vinci. He drew and painted from what he saw in nature, a method that is easily seen in Virgin of the Rocks. A part of his own philosophy, he thought the only way to accurately depict nature, was to first understand its intricacies and how it functioned. In his journal, he made sketches of such things as the muscles in a horse's legs and most famously, his Proportions of Man. This painting highlights Madonna, Child Jesus and John the Baptist, and an angel within a probable world. This scene resembles nothing like any painting made a quarter of a century before with its life-like depth and da Vinci's signature dreamy veil engrossing the painting.

A technique pointed out in his journal, da Vinci would find scale and proportion by looking at his subject "behind a sheet of glass." This instantly conquers the perhaps most daunting challenge a painter is faced: simulating three dimensions on a two-dimensional medium. I just recently tried my hand at drawing again using this approach in a drawing class. As a part of our first project, we took a picture of a still-life and turned it upside down. Seeing the confusion in the student's faces, our teacher explained to us one of da Vinci's conclusions-  when you just draw what you see, you draw proportionately.

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