While listening to an audio version of Walter Isaacson's Leonardo da Vinci, two F-words came up that surprised me: fail and finish. They are not what we associate with a man who has long been considered a Renaissance genius. Yet, Isaacson informs us that, over and over, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) failed to finish projects. Sometimes other artists were called in to complete them. Hearing this, I imagined many artists and writers would find this fact as comforting as I do, for who hasn't failed to finish a novel, a painting, an assemblage, a tapestry, a collage, a sculpture?
Isaacson explains how Leonardo's overall smaller-than-expected oeuvre is due to his restless curiosity. His success is not based on any definition that embraces quantity over quality, for the artist pursued science and technology, constantly observing and experimenting. He never stopped asking an inexhaustible number of questions that intrigued him. In his many thousands of notebook pages, Leonardo included to-do lists of what he wanted to learn: "Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders….Describe the tongue of a woodpecker....Observe the goose's foot....Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle…." Following up on them generally led him away from the main task at hand.
For example, Leonardo abandoned a 23-foot equestrian statue that was commissioned for a prince. Ditto for paintings and murals intended for affluent patrons. The "flying machines" he sketched never got off the ground. The tanks he drew never rolled along a road. The giant crossbow he designed never loosed a projectile against an enemy. His notebooks contain sketches on geology, geometry, engineering, ornithology, hydrodynamics, light, anatomy, astronomy, military strategy, flight, ophthalmology, and other topics. Quite a few of them are eerily prescient. He was a man far ahead of his time, pioneering ideas that wouldn't be realized for centuries.
Today, it would be too easy and unfortunate to diagnose Leonardo with a severe case of ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) because he was so easily and endlessly distracted. He was constantly captivated by new ideas and projects but, at a certain point, he would let them go. He defended his procrastination to one of his employers, who was understandably frustrated with him:
Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.
In this way, Leonardo reframed as strengths what others considered weaknesses. Distraction led to greater knowledge in a wide range of fields. Procrastination was part of his relentless perfectionism. He found fault in his work where others saw glory. Leonardo labored over the Mona Lisa for some 14 years, hauling it around, even strapping it to a mule as he moved from place to place. He would touch up the portrait with tiny strokes of new paint until there were 30 layers. Never delivered to Francesco del Giocondo, who commissioned it, the painting was sitting in Leonardo's studio when he passed away--waiting for yet one more brushstroke?
In Leonardo, Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford, notes that Leonardo would spend intense work days on the Last Supper, then let 2, 3, or 4 days elapse without touching it. When he stayed with the painting, he would spend an hour or two contemplating and considering the figures he had made, criticizing and debating with himself. On some days, he interrupted his efforts to pay attention to scientific and technical matters. Ultimately, on one level, the fresco was unsuccessful. Unlike traditional frescoes that were painted on wet plaster walls, Leonardo experimented with tempura paint on a dry, sealed plaster wall in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a Dominican convent in Milan. Because the paint did not adhere properly, it began to flake away only a few decades after the work was finished.
Not long before his death, Leonardo wrote: “Di mi se mai fu fatta alcuna cosa (Tell me, if anything was ever done/finished.)” Several hundred years later, French author and Symbolist poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945) commented:
In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished — a word that for them has no sense — but abandoned; and this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public (and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver) is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reflection, which fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless.
Such obsessiveness is often labeled as neurotic. But it was Leonardo's desire to learn from everyone and everything that compelled him to study. Kemp notes that, for Leonardo, the "only fully valid source of knowledge...was looking at real things and phenomena." For example, at one point, he concentrated on the minutest details of lip muscles. Rather than a mere divergence, it helped him to create the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile. At another time, he studied horses, which enabled him to depict the brutal realism of war in the lost painting The Battle of Anghiari (1505).
Also, from what Isaacson reports, Leonardo was not a maladjusted "crazy" artist. Rather, he "was at ease with being a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted and at times heretical." He also dressed flamboyantly and was self-taught rather than formally educated. Unlike some other famous artists, he wasn't especially competitive or combative, miserly or reclusive.
Nor was he egotistical. According to Isaacson, Leonardo was "more interested in pursuing knowledge than in publishing it. He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history."
Lest Leonardo be thought of as a slacker for not completing commissions, Kemp reminds us that in his courtly duties (e.g, in Milan and France), Leonardo was a consulting engineer and architect as well as a producer of utilitarian and decorative items. As an impresario of visual events, he created the sets, costumes, scenery, and stage mechanisms of plays, pageants, and other court spectacles. The artist honored these contractual agreements, and on time. The skills he acquired in his work as a stage designer, far from being yet another divertissement, actually gave him certain skills with which to paint The Last Supper. Kemp also points out that, contrary to the image of "an unprofessional dreamer," Leonardo maintained a busy workshop, "peopled by apprentices, assistants, and contracted workers who were engaged on a variety of technical and artistic tasks...of collaborative activity."
So what are we to make of fail and finish? Whatever the reason behind them, they are part of any creative's vocabulary. Take American painter Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978), in his conversation with Katherine Kuh [The Artist's Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists]:
This painting [The Fossil Hunters] was never finished [after 192 sittings]. Neither was Ruin at Daphne....None of the large paintings is really finished. There comes a time when I stop--because to go on would mean reorganizing the canvas from the bottom up. I can't throw away the investment of so many years...So I make the best of a bad job by finishing them as well as I can. In other words, they all topple over when they're about three-fifths done....As time goes on, one starts to disapprove of the earlier work.
French-American artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) told Kuh:
I never finished The Large Glass because after working on it for eight years I probably got interested in something else; also I was tired. It may be that subconsciously I never intended to finish it because the word 'finish' implies an acceptance of traditional methods and all the paraphernalia that accompany them.
When Kuh asked American painter Morris Graves (1910-2001) whether he was ever satisfied when he finished a work, he replied:
No, but I rarely see it clearly until years later. But there are rare occasions when I come on one of my paintings unexpectedly in a museum or home and find something in it that delights me.
And sometimes we manage to finish after having failed. Lithuanian-American artist and activist Ben Shahn (1898-1969), who protested against social injustice and honored ordinary people in his lithographs, paintings, photographs, and public murals, explained to Kuh:
You can see that I have no unfinished pictures around my studio, but sometimes I struggle with one...and then in desperation, having failed, wash it away, scrape it away and destroy it. This happened with Beatitudes. Four successive years I started that painting and it wouldn't work because I didn't face up to the problems. The problem was yellows. When I finally decided that the painting must be yellow, I was with it. Until then it just didn't work. The sky had to be yellow, the man had to be yellow, the earth had to be yellow--everything had to be yellow.
Failing to finish doesn't have to equate with failure. Distractions don't have to imply avoidance. Isaacson and Kemp interpret Leonardo's energetic and mercurial curiosity in a different light. The word "attract" means to draw to or toward; "distract" signifies to draw apart or away. Yes, Leonardo's attention was often drawn away, but that's because it was drawn to something else that was important to him. Yes, there's much he never finished, but what he explored on so many detours profoundly enriched his life and, therefore, his art.
Questions and Comments:
Are you easily distracted? Do you find yourself falling down rabbit-holes? If so, does veering off the main path wind up giving you what you least expected for your art?
If it's easy for you to complete projects, what helps to do that? How do you bypass distractions and barriers and make it to the finish line?
If you encounter difficulty in finishing projects, how do you discern the difference between curiosity and avoidance, between patience to let things emerge in their own time and an inability to keep going?