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Sr. Contributor

Drawing has been a part of a beginning artist’s training for centuries, and it was no different for the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo used drawing as a tool for understanding the world--for practicing, observation, and scientific study. While he left behind only a handful of paintings, he covered thousands of pages with drawings. At the time, beyond the use for training and practice, drawings had different purposes; they could be used to put together a kind of “samples” book, with different motifs and designs to be replicated elsewhere, and larger drawings (sometimes at full-scale) would be utilized for sculptural or even architectural work. 

During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, drawings largely served a utilitarian purpose, rather than standing as works of art on their own. Florence may have been the exception to this, as disegno (drawing) was considered to be the very foundation of art, at least according to Giorgio Vasari, author of the world’s first art history book, "The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects," first published in 1550. Vasari felt pretty strongly about the importance of drawing, as he even criticizes the training of Venetian artists because apparently, they didn’t learn drawing as a basic skill. We don’t know how true Vasari’s statement is, but suffice it to say, drawing is an important skill for any artist, then or now.

Vasari may also have been one of the first collectors of drawings, just for the sake of collecting. He attached the drawings in a notebook, then added his own drawn frames and embellishments, such as this page from Libro de' Disegni. Vasari was able to get a page of drawings from Leonardo himself, and one of the faces bears a resemblance to our stern-faced guy featured in Bust of a Warrior, in the collection of the British Museum.

Leonardo drew the Warrior, not in ink, charcoal, or chalk, but with a piece of metal: a stylus made of, or tipped with, silver. The use of soft metals was commonly used in both drawing and writing during the 15th century; graphite would not become widely used for these tasks until later in the 1600s. Silverpoint drawing (other metals like tin and lead were also used) works by leaving a very fine deposit of metal particles on the surface to which it is applied; this usually involves using a ground layer on top of the paper or vellum (the support). The ground consisted of pigments combined with some type of an organic binder; this makes the drawing surface more receptive to the silver particles which would be pretty much permanent, so no grabbing an eraser after using this medium.

The fine line of metal left on the support would begin to oxidize very quickly to a gray color comparable to the graphite of a pencil. Further oxidation occurs over time, which causes variations in the chemical state and color; silver will change to the warm brown color as seen in the Leonardo drawing. In one of his notebooks, Leonardo writes about the challenges in capturing the movements of people on paper, and how best to do that: “…be sure to take with you a little book with pages prepared with bone meal, and with a silver point briefly note the movements and actions of the bystanders and their grouping. This will teach you how to compose narrative paintings.”

So, who is the man depicted in the drawing? There has been speculation that Leonardo’s Warrior is a copy of one of two “bronze heads” that were made by Andrea del Verrocchio: one of Alexander the Great, and the other of Darius the Great (the one Leonardo’s is supposedly a copy of), based on his own imagination. Leonardo was not known to draw or paint any portraits in full profile; the Warrior is the only one known to exist; Leonardo was, however, a student of Verrocchio’s, so there is a connection. The man in Leonardo's drawing is wearing some seriously ornate armor and quite an elaborate helmet, which is something shared by the existing marble profile bust that Verrocchio made depicting Alexander the Great. That heavy-looking helmet may be the reason that the warrior has such a scowl on his face.


Comments (2)

Jillian Warkentin

I have really enjoyed reading and learning about metalpoint, and all the work and dedication that goes into it. This piece reflects the precision that takes. This 'Bust of a Warrior' features different kinds of symbolism, the most prominent being the lion figure on the breastplate. The lion, like the warrior, carries itself with regality and strength.


silverpoint/metalpoint seems like an intimidating medium. Especially with a more intense drawings like this one. Don't mess up!