Jul 152011

Advice from Uncle Leo

[ Ten Tips from a Master ]

The advice of master artists can

easily be adapted to photography.

If we want a useful set of guidelines,

it might as well come from the greatest

artists in history.  By deciphering the

tips they gave to young artists of

the day, we should be able to improve

our understanding of photography

and design.

Saint Jerome hard at work well into his eighties.  Caravaggio.

—What the young Student in Painting ought in the first place to learn.

The young student should, in the first place, acquire a knowledge of perspective, to enable him to give to every object its proper dimension: after which, it is requisite that he be under the care of an able master, to accustom him, by degrees, to a good style of drawing the parts.  Next, he must study Nature, in order to confirm and fix in his mind the reason of those precepts which he has learnt.  He must also bestow some time in viewing the works of various old masters, to form his eye and judgement, in order that he may be able to put into practice all that he has been taught.

I imagine that Ansel Adams could have spoken about this pine cone with the same intensity as John Muir. Pine Cone.  © Ansel Adams


There are three clear ideas which stick out here.  One, learn from a master. Even if that master is long dead, if you dedicate yourself to uncovering the techniques which made that artist successful, you stand a fighting chance of making a dent in the photography world.  But it is preferred that you study with someone who can answer your questions in real time.  It will save hours of head scratching and heart break.  Two, if you want to shoot exotic cars as a subject matter, learn about the cars inside and out.  If you want to study food, learn how to cook.  When you study a subject matter like a professional it will allow you to see your subject with clear eyes and a sharp mind.  It is no accident that Ansel Adams was well versed in geology and botany.  And lastly, Old Master Works are not the wallpaper of museum.  They were left to posterity as a tool for study.  Go see artwork in person and buy some books from your favorite artists.  Artwork needs to be studied with a careful eye and tracing paper.  As you build a small library of your favorite artists, your favorite pictures will come to life.

Study of hands by Leonardo Da Vinci.

—Rule for a young Student in Painting

The organ of sight is one of the quickest, and takes in at a single glance an infinite variety of forms; notwithstanding which, it cannot perfectly comprehend more than one object at a time.  For example, the reader, at one look over this page, immediately perceives it full of different characters; but he cannot at the same moment distinguish each letter, much less can he comprehend their meaning.  He must consider it work by word, and line by line, if he be desirous of forming a just notion of these characters.  In like manner, if we wish to ascend to the top of an edifice, we must be content to advance step by step, otherwise we shall never be able to attain it.

A young man (or woman), who has a natural inclination to the study of this art, I would advise to act thus: In order to acquire a true notion of the form of things, he must begin by studying the parts which compose them and not pass to a second till he has well stored his memory, and sufficiently practiced the first; otherwise he loses his time, and will most certainly protract his studies.  And let him remember to acquire accuracy before he attempts quickness.

Boys On The Beach.   © Marco Rodarte-Elias

For most of us the ability to see is a given.  We were born with sight, we will die with sight, which is why it is taken for granted.  As Da Vinci points out we can see in general, but understanding requires seeing the world piece by piece.  Scientists do man a great disservice by saying we can see almost 180 degrees.  In a sense this is true, but when we look at the world, we need to focus on details and then assemble everything into a meaningful interpretation.  This happens very quickly, but in most cases it is a sloppy practice.  By studying the “way we see” it opens up new relationships that were invisible.  I am sure this has happened to you at some point:  You look at a scene, take a picture, and then while reviewing the image notice some glaring error.  By the scientific definition you should have seen it, but for some reason you did not.  Its happened to me thousands of times.  But as we refine our ability to see with an artists eye the world begins to look very different.

Avoid being a prisoner of impatience. Take time to develop your skills. Leonardo Da Vinci.

—How to discover a young Man’s (or woman’s) Disposition for Painting

Many are very desirous of learning to draw, and are very fond of it, who are, notwithstanding, void of a proper disposition for it. This may be known be their want of perseverance; like the boys, who draw everything in a hurry, never finishing, or shadowing.

There is no need to rush through your photographic studies. Hang out, stay a while. Panama.  © Alex Webb

Ever wanted to learn to draw or speak a foreign language.  These two goals decorate “New Years Resolution Lists” around the world.  But Da Vinci points out, lots of people want the same thing.  The people who succeed work slow and steady to make art their reality, not just a hobby.  For some this might be through a camera, others through pencil, but the same motivation drives both forces.  The worst thing we can do is skip quickly through our foundations “…in a hurry, never finishing.”

It sounds like Da Vinci would have spent most of his time shooting with a 75mm or 90mm lens. Battle of Anghiari. Leonardo Da Vinci.

—Of drawing from Nature

When you draw from Nature, you must be at the distance of three times the height of the object; and when you begin to draw, form in your own mind a certain principle line (suppose a perpendicular); observe well the bearing of the parts towards that line; whether they intersect it, are parallel to it, or oblique.

Artists formalize with straight lines because it is easier than designing with curved lines. Equestrian study. Leonardo Da Vinci

The principle line in a drawing is pure hallucination.  It does not exist for all to see.  You need to image the geometries of life in straight lines.  Straight lines are easy to formalize and organize which is why it has been an artistic secret for thousands of years.  As photographers we need to envision lines running right through the bodies of our subjects so we can relate them to each other and design them into a field.

Even the opinions of non-photographers can be helpful, though listening to them is not always easy. Old men study. Leonardo Da Vinci.

—That a Painter should take Pleasure in the Opinions of everybody

A painter ought not certainly to refuse listening to the opinion of any one; for we know that, although a man be not a painter, he may have just notions of the forms of menwhether a man has a hump on his back, a thick leg or large hand; whether he be lame, or have any other defect.  Now, if we know that men are able to judge of the works of Nature, should we not think them more able to detect our errors.

Ladies in a heated discussion in Padua Italy. I took this with a 35mm Summicron that was later bought up after I reviewed it.  © Adam Marelli

This can be a challenge, but even the most trained artist or photographer can loose perspective on their own work.  Asking non-artists will bring up points you may have never considered.  A word of warning, this does not always go smoothly, so try to listen as best as possible and back out of the room quietly if you disagree.  A screaming match with anyone over an image will cloud the useful contribution hidden in the criticism.  Though every now and again, there are no redeemable points in someone criticism.  One trick I have learned over the years is to seek out professionals who understand the subject matter.  Having a stone mason look at your architectural images or a florist look at your pictures of flowers will blow your mind.

When a figure is pulling, rather than pushing all of the muscles are engaged. It is a much stronger pose which will carry more action in an image. The Rape of Proserpina. Bernini.

—In which of the two Actions, Pulling or Pushing, a Man has the greatest Power

A man has the greatest strength in pulling, for in that action he has the united exertion of all the muscles of the arm, while some of them must be inactive when he is pushing; because when the arm is extended for that purpose, the muscles which move the elbow cannot act, any more than if he pushed with his shoulders against the column he means to thrown down; in which case the only muscles that extend the back, the legs under the thigh, and the calves of the legs would be active.  From which we conclude, that in pulling there is added to the power of extension the strength of the arms, of the legs, of the back, and even of the chest, if the oblique motion of the body require it.  But in pushing, though all the parts were employed; yet the strength of the muscles of the arms is wanting; for to push with an extended arm without motion, does not help more than if a piece of wood were placed from the shoulder to the column meant to be pushed down.

Serra Pelada, Brazil. Dispute between a miner and a guard. The power of this image comes from the man's hand pulling on that gun. His body is alive with energy which jumps off of the screen.  © Sebastiao Salgado.

Cartier-Bresson mentions all the time, “…we must know what we are looking for.”  This is a helpful, but vague statement.  What are we looking for?  Well if we are looking to create a strong image, it helps to have an understanding of anatomy, physiology, and the mechanics of the human body.  If we know that “pulling” uses more muscles than “pushing” we know to look for a dock worker pulling a heavy rope rather than pushing a cart.  These little observations about the human body will allow us to imbue action into our images.

We want figures to have limbs in opposing action, though here Cartier-Bresson shows us how we can play similar actions together. The unity of their direction gives this image extra power because the woman in the rear supports the diagonal of the main subject. Ahmedabad, India.  © Henri Cartier-Bresson.

— Postures of Figures

Figures that are set in a fixed attitude, are nevertheless to have some contrast of parts.  If one are come before, the other remains or goes behind.  If the figure rests upon one leg, the shoulder on that side will be lower than the other. This is observed by artists of judgement who always take care to balance the figure well upon its feet, for feet it should appear to fall.  Because by resting upon one foot, the other leg be a little bent, does not support the body any more than if it were dead; therefore it is necessary that the parts above the leg should transfer the centre of their weight upon the leg which supports the body.

An orator in action. This is the "Death of Socrates" by Jacques Louis David.


The human body is symmetrical in theory, not in practice.  We do not want to take mug shots, they are flat and boring.  In order to create variety, we must look for the moment when opposing gestures animate our subject.  If you memorize the motions of figures in famous paintings, you will be able to identify the same motions in a living scene.  Then the second you see the extended gesture of Socrates holding out his arm, you click the shutter.  Again if we know what we are looking for, its easier to find it.

Notice how the chest looks left while her face look directly at us. This subtle twist makes for a famously engaging image. Leonardo Da Vinci.

—Motions of Figures

Never put the head straight upon the shoulders, but a little turned sideways to the right or left, even though the figures should be looking up or down or straight, because it is necessary to give them some motion of life and spirit.  Nor ever compose a figure in such a manner, either in a front or back view, as that every part falls straight upon another from the top to the bottom.  But if you wish to introduce such a figure use it for old age.  Never repeat the same motions of arms or of legs, not only not in the same figure, but in those which are standing by or near, if the necessity of the case or the expression of the subject you represent, no not oblige you to it.

The head and the shoulders should not point the same direction in a street portrait.  It is one of the most common mistakes of street photographer to take pictures when the head and chest are facing the same direction.  There is a simple way to avoid this mistake.  If you are taking a portrait and the person is cooperating,  take the first picture  right in front of them.  They expect you to shoot from this angle so it will be easy.  Then continue stepping to one side.  Their head will turn, but their body will not move.  Until you walk almost 90 degrees around them, they will only twist their head, not their chest.  This will give you a dynamic action in the second, third, or fourth picture.

Raphael has designed a great deal of variety in the figures of The School of Athens. Raphael.

— Of the Variety of Figures in History Paintings

History paintings must exhibit a variety in its fullest extend.  in temper, size, complexion, actions, plumpness, leanness, thick, think, large, small, round, smooth, old age and youth, strong and muscular, weak, with little appearance of muscles, cheerfulness, and melancholy.  Some should be with curled hair, and some with straight; some short, some long, some with quick motions, and some slow, with a variety of dresses and colours, according as the subject may require.

When we shoot a big crowd we are looking for variety in its members. The banks of the Ganges in Varanasi India.  © Adam Marelli

History paintings used to be considered the highest form of art.  But a five hundred years later, they look more like antique street photography.  There are lots of people, arranged in various groups, illustrating multiple themes.  Sound familiar?  When you compose a scene on the street, look for people that are either freakishly similar or wonderfully different.  The range of personalities will help you images.  A nun standing next to a dominatrix on 28th street is sure to grab the audience’s attention.

Leon Trotsky giving a speech to a crowd of Danish Students.  © Robert Capa.

— The Representation of an Orator and his Audience

If you have to represent a man who is speaking to a large assembly of people, you are to consider the subject matter of his discourse, and to adapt his attitude to such subject.  If he means to persuade, let it be known by his gesture.  If he is giving an explanation, deduced from several reasons, let him put two fingers of the right hand within one of the left, having the other two bent close, his face turned towards the audience, with the mouth half open, seeming to speak.  If he is sitting, let him appear as going to raise himself up a little, and his head be forward.  But if he is represented standing, let him bend his chest and his head forward towards the people.

The auditory are to appear silent and attentive, with their eyes upon the speaker, in the act of admiration.  There should be some old men, with their mouths close shut, in token of approbation, and their lips pressed together, so as to form wrinkles at the corners of the mouth and about the cheeks, and forming others about the forehead, by raising the eyebrows, as if struck with astonishment.  Some others of those sitting by should be seated with their hands within each other, round one of their knees; some with one knee upon the other, and upon that, one hand receiving the elbow, the other supporting the chin, covered with a venerable beard.

Capa does a mediocre job of capturing prototypical gestures of a speaker, but it was enough to garner the young Hungarian some attention.  © Robert Capa

The first botched job of Endre Freidmann, who would later be known as Robert Capa to photograph Leon Trotsky rally where he was delivering a powerful speech the Russian Revolution to a crowd of Danish students.  The most successful images in the series work because they coordinate Trotsky’s hand gestures with his passionate message.  When we are shooting people performing actions, look for gestures that typify their behavior.  Politicians and public speakers are even trained to use hand gestures to emphasize points and add meaning to their words.  Dictators are notorious for repeating the mannerism as they create public caricatures of themselves.  Hand gestures can become their signature moves.  Hitler stole his salute from the Roman Cesears, while professional athletes are constantly refining their signature celebration moves.  It is our job to find the moment of greatest intensity to deliver a image.

All of the quotes above came from Leonardo Da Vinci’s: Treatise on Painting.

  9 Responses to “Leonardo Da Vinci”

  1. Adam, once again you have managed to compose another outstanding article. I appreciated your use of masterpieces of art. Very informative and helpful article. Thanks.

    • Hey Renee,

      Happy to share some of the books and ideas with you all. If you liked the article, you should love Da Vinci’s book. Hearing the advice in his words will be super helpful.


  2. Interesting article, which left me wondering on some things.

    About the idea of having some kind of master to look up too. Makes sense even to the anarchist that I am. For example my brother was involved in a photo club in his town for the last year and from what I see it has not improved his composition and his lack of computer knowledge has remained pretty much as it is. Photo remains a simple hobby to him. Personally I have strived to learn “by myself” as opposed to going to school and having formal teachers. Yet I’ve met and made friends who are professionals (or almost) and they have proved very important in providing helpful tricks and techniques… Add to that the web that is teaming with all kinds of pictures and info as well as virtual masters.

    On knowing your subject : one can’t stress that enough! Too many people forget the importance of content over form, in many areas. I’ve seen lots of people with superior technical skill and better equipment than me, yet they can’t seem to do a proper candid portrait. It does remain pretty hazy when it comes to people, especially street photo. Learning about cars is easy, it just takes memory. To know people takes lots of experience and intuition, a bit of psychology, sociology (and some knowledge of politics/economy). But that’s only the first part, one needs to interact properly too. Also I think the more you know about their trade/occupation, the better. For example I’ve shot lots of circus artists lately and I had to learn about proper posture technique and what not so that not only do the pictures look good, but also the performer him/herself in a more technical way. For musicians you want to be able to follow a beat, anticipate expressive movements…

    Just a few thoughts I had… but thanks for a good article. Can’t be bad to look at things from different perpectives!

    • Hey Fred,

      Thank you for the thoughtful feedback. When I was in art school, one of my teachers said, ” I feel bad for boys today because they have no role models.” This comment, for what its worth, stuck with me. Since then I have found a few living role models, who have done a tremendous service to my work. While I might have arrived at their ideas eventually, re-inventing the wheel wastes a lot of time and effort. There is a certain amount of experiences we need to learn first hand, but there are volumes of lessons we can absorb from a mentor (of sorts). Ideally, photographers should help each other out. Even a fellow anarchist, Henri Cartier-Bresson, thought so too.

      I like the Isaac Newton quote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

      Good art leaves clues.

      And your observations on knowing your subject are spot on. This Fall I will be starting a project on builders, something which I feel ready to tackle after nearly 10 years of being a contractor. Having a professional insight into your subject, should give you an enhanced ability to anticipate action, understand the scenes, and reach further into the material than someone looking for the first time. The psychology part we will just have to wing.

      Thanks again.


  3. Adam- I must say, your website is the first site I’ve run across that gives out REAL advice on photography and art in general. I can’t tell you how many ‘experts’ give such general and useless ‘advice’ such as ‘shoot a lot of photos- you can only learn by shooting a lot’. What kind of nonsense advice is that? It’s like saying ‘Fly a lot- you can only learn by getting in the pilots seat and flying a lot-’ Apparently, instructions on the basics isn’;t needed- only the desire to fly or photograph is enough?

    You have to know WHAT you are looking for- if you don’;t know WHAT to look for- you will never know WHEN it presentsa itself because you don’;t have the skill needed to recognize WHAT it is that is presenting itself. Take this article for example- How many photographers knew that pulling created more dynamic tension than pushing does? I’;ll bet not many! And now that we’ve been instructed that pulling creates dynamic tension, we can be on the lookout for such situations and know WHEN this WHAT presents itself, and will recognize it when other photographers will be just blindly clicking awayt not knowing what it is they are looking for- and I suppose hoping that one day all their happy clicking will just click in to place and they will have some glorious ‘aha’ moment.

    Please please please keep posting articles that teach WHAT to look for so that amatures like myself have some good solid teaching instead of the general and useless ‘advice’ which is so prevelent on the net to ‘just take lots of photos- it’ll all snap into place for you someday’- No it won’t! like Fred saifd- his brother isn’;t making any progress because he isn’;t being properly taight HOW to make progress (neither am I- I’ve been spinning my wheels for years now looking for practuical and useful advice on WHAT to look for, and beleive me I was getting very frustrated and feltl ike just giving up. I want my photosw to have impact, form, structure, and to mean something more than just an ok snapshot recording of what I see- I want my photos to mean something- to say something- to move people, and no amount of happy shutter snappoing is going to accomplish this for me- I need to know WHAT to look for, like hte diagonals of eugene smith- that one little tip and article on diagonals was worth it’s wieght in gold- or almost- still need to know how to form those angles in the viewfinder- what angles are best etc-

    • Hey Naz,

      There are many lessons embedded in the traditions of figure drawing and portraiture that photographers never learn. As Myron Barnstone repeats endlessly to me, “You are not the first person to attempt a portrait. The advantage is that you can study the artists before you and understand what they are doing.”

      It is very true that artists are doing and looking for specific things, movements, gestures and angles. A good artist, like Da Vinci, does not make it apparent. Everything, in its finished state looks natural, but is in fact wonderfully designed.

      I am excited to see your enthusiasm for the material on the site. It is a fraction of the material I cover in Private Lessons and Workshops. But it is no less useful to any photographer.

      Something as simple as Pulling is only one example of what we need to look for in a scene. Most of the time, without training, we are fixated on the facial expressions. They are useful, but in comparison to the entire scene they are not the most important feature. A photographer must train in fundamentals if they ever expect to consistently create powerful images.

      Little by little, hopefully with some guidance, you can avoid the frustration and make powerful images on a regular basis.


  4. [[There are many lessons embedded in the traditions of figure drawing and portraiture that photographers never learn.]]

    An d beleive me, that aspiring artists never learn either- I went to college for art, and never learned these concepts, and have tons of books on art supposedly ‘teaching art’ and never read anything like what I’ve seen presented here

    All along, I knew there was something that the masters knew, but weren’t sharing, and I’ve been a long long time trying to discover just what it was, and I think I’m finally on the right track having discovered your website talking about design principles inherent in master works

    [[A good artist, like Da Vinci, does not make it apparent. Everything, in its finished state looks natural, but is in fact wonderfully designed. ]]

    I can now see this truth after having you point out the designs in master works- I sure wish I had known this years and years ago- it would have saved a ton of frustration and spinning of wheels on my part- When I saw the painting by a 13 year old picasso, and saw how structured and disciplined it was, it just blew my mind discovering that he had actually studied divine proportions and knew how to skillfully use them at such a young age. To think that he knew of such a powerful design tool as the golden means/triangles etc at such a young age just goes to show that there was very careful planning and design elements that had to be learned first before artists began to create their powerful masterpieces-

    • Hey Naz,

      My apologies for the delayed response.

      Yes, most of the art teachers I ever had were terribly deficient at their craft and as teachers. There were a tiny handful of good ones, which had a profound affect on my understanding of what a work of art is “doing.” So many books on art describe what an artwork looks like. I dont need a photo, sculpture, or painting described to me as if I were a blind man. We can all use our eyes. What we want to understand is that is the artist up to and what is the art work doing. The verbs are more important than the adjectives.

      And no need to lament the years lost. It does not matter when someone begins to understand art. We all wish we learned earlier, but as long as we eventually get it, all is not lost.

      There is a tremendous amount of gear spinning that happens, but dont feel left out. I spun my gears at point. Once it begins to click, the gears catch and you will take off.


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