What if you could sit down in an interview with Leonardo da Vinci and ask him what he considered his title should be. I believe his answer would surprise you. He would not claim to be an inventor, engineer, scientist, cartographer, architect, military engineer, nor a mathematician. He would say he was an artist. Those other titles were only a byproduct of his trade.
If you were to ask what drove him, he would simply say, “Curiosity.” All you need to do is learn how to study what is around you. Leonardo wrote, “To have a complete mind, study the science of art, and the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything is connected to everything else.”
When you stop to really study the sketches and drawings of Leonardo, you realize every line the master drew. Every line of shading, every curve, was drawn only once. He did not use a pencil, it wasn’t to be invented for another 250 years. There were no erasers, CTRL Z to undo, no whiteout liquid to cover up an unwanted line. He used quill pens and inks that he had to make himself. The inks were made with bits of iron, which would have given a darker brown or black ink. Over the years, the iron oxides reacted to air and they turned brown.
If you were to ask Leonardo what was his tool of choice when sketching he would reply, “Perspective Geometry,” which he learned and mastered. Today, we have Smartphones that can take video and digital photos. We have access to computers and printers from jet inks to laser printers. But, we have no way to transfer the images that come from our imagination onto paper. We can describe them in intimate details in words, but seeing the image spares us of trying to reconstruct words back into an image. This is where Leonardo’s tool of projected geometry (one and two-point perspective) comes in handy.
“But, I can’t draw” comes the retort. “I can’t even draw a crooked line,” some say with exaggeration. Drawing is a skill, and skills can be learned. Adding the tool of perspective geometry along with a pencil or pen today is all you need to transfer your imagination onto paper.
Now, to be fair, Leonardo did not invent perspective geometry. That honor belongs to another Italian, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), a little over forty years before Leonardo was born. Brunelleschi needed the geometry to complete his biggest project–completing the dome over the Florence Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The dome of the cathedral was left unfinished for 400 years because no one had figured a way how to complete the large dome. The dome width was 150 feet in width and was 180 feet above the ground. Brunelleschi was able to make the construction plans using his new tool of perspective and then inventing new techniques and technologies to finish building the cathedral dome.
It was another contemporary artist of Brunelleschi, Leon Alberti, who took pen in hand to record in a book lessons on how to draw a three-dimensional object onto a two-dimensional sheet of paper. Alberti’s book included two lessons: The first on how to construct a one-point perspective, and chapter 2 how to create a two-point perspective. By the time the young Leonardo entered as an apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio’s art workshop, perspective drawing was all the rage. He quickly learned how to use this magical tool to transfer his imagination and three-dimensional objects into his notebooks.
When I make visits to the Disney Imagineers offices in Burbank, California, I find among all the technologies comprising of Smartboards, computers, 3D printers, and more, one common tool that starts every project–the pencil. The same truth can be found even at the JPL/NASA offices of engineering. It is the cheapest, but the simplest tool to create from. Leonardo wrote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and he was right!
The second truth points out that if you really look and study the world around you–You will find patterns. The catalyst that is needed at this point is curiosity. Because it is curiosity that makes the connections to everything else. It is unfortunate that we live in a world today where people really don’t stop and look, smell, taste, and touch with curiosity. We live in a world where information and data are literally in the palm of our hands, and yet very few really know how to access it and use it.
At this point, I will make a slight detour into our present educational system. A system designed through its curriculum and lesson plans to arrive at a set answer, concept, or procedure. A system designed to structure learning and put a brake on creativity. Standardization leaves very little room for student-directed learning and for questions not within the plan structure. Teaching math as an Art, exploring and discovering science, and learning about the different fields of engineering are pushed aside for scantron testing and assessments. The present system removes curiosity and replaces it with spoiler alerts.
The Academy of Leonardo’s Apprentice is daring to create a platform for secondary students not only to work in but to exchange different perspectives in solving problems. To gain those perspectives students must first learn to get the best answer, not the only one, they must first learn how to ask the right question. It is equally important that they learn the science of art and the art of science. Finding the patterns and making the connections comes next.
Modern technology is great. The perspective techniques that Leonardo learned and used 500 years ago have gone through an evolution from paper to projected geometry. For example, a technology that was invented using projected geometry called augmented reality (AR) has many uses. The rover you see below is not real, but a 3D projection focusing on my driveway from my iPhone and photographed. Using my phone I can walk around the rover to see all its parts. Many of its parts, like the camera, can move, and even the rover itself can move. What other uses can augmented reality be used for? How will that add to virtual reality tools and even holographic projections? The future in transferring imagination into reality is coming closer, and to think, it all began with a simple question on how you might see things from a different perspective.