Learning Innovation from Leonardo Da Vinci

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When one thinks of Leonardo da Vinci and innovation, the typical picture that emerges would be some of Leonardo’s amazing designs for flying machines, military equipment, or even the Vitruvian Man, perhaps the most famous drawing in history.  I recently read Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper, which focuses on the life of Leonardo da Vinci as it relates to his astounding mural painting at the refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. The Last Supper painting is almost as famous as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, which is possibly the most famous painting in the history of the world. King observes that The Last Supper is a landmark in painting because it marks the beginning of the High Renaissance in art, demonstrating a “magnificent and intellectually sophisticated style emphasizing harmony, proportion, and movement.” King posits that Leonardo’s amazing work created “an entirely new moment in the history of art.”  In 1489, Pietro Perugino was considered the most famous painter in all of Italy. By 1505, after people had seen The Last Supper, Perugino unveiled his latest altarpiece but was “ridiculed for his lack of ability and want of originality” because, as King notes, by 1505 the world had seen the “staggering creative power of Leonardo.”

As I read the story of the making of The Last Supper, I thought about how a modern innovation practitioner could benefit from some of the thoughts around how Leonardo approached his art.


According to King, “[p]erhaps no one in history ever drew so much as Leonardo, or felt such a compelling need to record on paper everything he saw.”  Leonardo carried a sketchbook with him wherever he went and was a keen observer of “people going about their daily business.”  He focused on “capturing their features and postures as accurately and realistically as possible.”  Leonardo himself wrote that aspiring painters should “go about, and constantly, as you go, observe, note and consider the circumstances and behavior of men in talking, quarreling or laughing or fighting together.” He thought it was wrong for a painter to copy the work or another artist, and recommended that artists work in the open air, observing live subjects in their natural settings.  For example, Leonardo catalogued ten different shapes of noses and used these to make the figures in his paintings more life-like.  For the modern innovator, this aspect of Leonardo’s approach suggests the importance of observation in terms of identifying new innovations. The innovator should leave his or her office and get out to other parts of one’s organization or even outside that organization or company. Because the human eye captures so much more information than the ears, it is critical for an innovator to use this sense to the fullest extent possible.  If one is trying to solve a problem, one should use one’s powers of observation to dive into the problem, including as much actual physical experience as possible.

If one is trying to solve a problem, one should use one’s powers of observation to dive into the problem, including as much actual physical experience as possible.

Studio Environment

Leonardo’s next piece of advice for painters focused on the size of the painter’s studio.  Leonardo wrote that while “[s]mall rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, large ones weaken it.”  However, King notes that, in fact, Leonardo often occupied some of the largest rooms in a castle when he worked on commissions for wealthy or powerful patrons.  Leonardo also believed that a studio should be “full of fine paintings,” “often filled with music, or the sound of different beautiful books being read, which are often heard with great pleasure.”  Finally, Leonardo recommended that a painter live an isolated life where possible, noting that “[w]hile you are alone you are entirely your own master, and if you have one companion you are but half your own.”  These seemingly disparate pieces of advice from Leonardo contain tidbits of wisdom for the modern innovator.  The setup of workspaces receives a great deal of attention in our offices today, with the increasing popularity of the open bullpen-type environment with low cubicle walls and the end of the single, closed-door offices of the past.  While opinions about the efficacy of the open office vary, the importance of ease of communications and camaraderie/team-building from such a setup can benefit the innovation practitioner.

With regard to Leonardo’s advice that a smaller workspace can “discipline the mind,” my experience has been that the silence and intense concentration afforded by a quiet, isolated room (although with the addition of natural light, which I’ve always thought was critical to clear thinking) can lead to a more effective process for driving out the details of an innovation stream.  A large room, though, might be better suited for brainstorming or collaborative work.  One example of an open, modern workplace intended to inspire creativity is that of the Chiat/Day agency (creators of the famous ad campaign introducing the Apple Mac), which in 1993 commissioned Frank Gehry to design an interior workspace that matched the creative vigor of the inhabitants of the building.  The result was a workspace with no cubicles, offices, or normal desks and where a four-story tall pair of binoculars and pods from old fairground rides defined the area.  Frank Duffy, a prominent office design architect, speaking of another similar project, noted that “its gravest weakness is that it is a place where ‘play’ is enforced on everyone, all the time.”

The lesson here is that workspace design sends a message to its inhabitants, and that message is incredibly important to the overall mission of those in the room. Leonardo’s thoughts from the 15th century suggest that he understood this characteristic of the workplace.

Interestingly, Leonardo presages one of the features of the modern open workspace when he talks about a room being filled with music, though he did not anticipate the ubiquity of headphones in an open workspace with workers playing mp3s or streaming audio to overcome the cacophony of the office environment. Leonardo’s final recommendation about the importance of an isolated life for the artist is something that is challenging for an innovator in a modern enterprise, but the importance of thinking independently should not be underestimated.  If an innovator sits in a room with the same people all the time, the same ideas and thoughts will be bounced around over and over again and new thinking will be hard to find.

Red Chalk

Art historians have benefitted greatly by a number of chalk-based studies Leonardo created for The Last Supper, in which he worked on detailed designs of various attributes of the painting, such as hands, noses, and other attributes of the painting.  King writes that although “Leonardo used black chalk in a few surviving studies for The Last Supper, […] he seems to have favored – and even pioneered – the use of red chalk.”  Red chalk, consisting of a mixture of clay and iron oxide, dates from Roman times and appears in their wall paintings.  This is an example of where Leonardo purposely stepped away from the conventions followed by his fellow artists.  Charcoal prints, using familiar black chalk, were the typical way to sketch out designs before working in more permanent media such as paint or sculpture.  When an artist wanted to make an initial sketch, the answer was always black charcoal as the tool.  Leonardo started using red chalk because it had two attributes that were superior to black charcoal.  First, the red chalk gave rise to better depiction of the human form because the red tones could be used to mimic the color of flesh.  This was also true for other red-hued scenes, such as smoke or fire or sunlight.  This red coloration made Leonardo’s prints more life-like.  Second, the red chalk was harder than charcoal and could be sharpened to a finer point which allowed for more detailed drawings.

For the modern innovator, the lesson here is to not accept the conventional tools that colleagues or competitors have always used to solve problems. Finding a simple deviation from the common toolset can provide new capabilities.

Hatch Marks

In creating his study drawings in chalk, Leonardo followed a convention used by other artists of the time but with a slight deviation.  Typically, artists would create shading in their drawings through use of parallel strokes called hatching.  According to King, most artists “drew their parallel lines from the lower left to the upper right, ////, [whereas] Leonardo executed his from the lower right to the upper left, \.”  King notes that the “reason for the individual style was simple: Leonardo was left-handed [… and a]s a mancino, or southpaw, it was easier and more natural for him to draw these backward-leaning hatch marks than to follow the more conventional method.”  From an innovation standpoint, the teaching here comes in the form of following one’s instincts and natural flow to drive innovation rather than trying to adhere to convention.  Leonardo could have tried to force himself to follow the standard hatch mark of lower left to upper right in order to be more like his fellow artists.  Indeed, in that era left-handedness was seen as a flaw and people sometimes took steps to try to force their children to become right-handed.

It is possible that had Leonardo resisted his natural inclination to left-handedness then he might not have achieved the heights of artistic achievement that he was able to attain.


One lesser-known fact about The Last Supper is that it was not the only painting work underway in the refectory in Santa Maria delle Grazie in 1495.  King states that the local painter “Giovanni Donato da Montorfano was hired – probably by Ludovico Sforza – to paint a Crucifixion scene on the wall opposite the one where Leonardo was to work.” There were two reasons for this pairing of artists in the refectory.  First, it was traditional at the time for refectories to contain representations of both the last supper and the Crucixion, which, King notes, “allowed the monks and nuns to identify with Christ’s sufferings and, as they were exhorted, to contemplate the mysteries of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.” A second reason for the inclusion of the second painting was that art patrons saw the value of pitting one artist against the other to try to elicit from each one his greatest work.  Few people today would consider remarkable the Crucifixion scene across from Leonardo’s work, even if the former has survived in better condition over the years than Leonardo’s masterpiece [see below for an explanation]. For the innovator, the lesson here is that a little competition can help inspire the efforts of individuals on a team.

When trying to solve a challenge, the innovation leader may want to set up two independent teams to pursue solutions to a problem so that the natural dynamics of competition will drive the participants to explore different ideas without being stuck following the same pathways.

Complementary Colors

When we think of brilliant colors on a Renaissance fresco painting we often arrive at a mental image of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling which, after an extensive cleaning and restoration that was completed in 1994, contained brilliant colors that had faded over the centuries.  Leonardo’s masterpiece, likewise, contains stunning colors because Leonardo leveraged a technique known to us today as color complementarity.  As King observes, Leonardo “wanted his mural to have the chromatic panache of an altarpiece painted in tempera or oil rather than this more limited range of tones necessitated by fresco.”  To accomplish this, King continues, Leonardo had to understand “the way colors interacted: how one color could affect, or was affected by, the one beside it.”  King cites Leonardo’s own writings as evidence of his knowledge of this aspect of color complementarity.  “The surface of any opaque body,” Leonardo stated, “is affected by the color of surrounding objects [… and colors can] change their intensity and hue depending on what colors surround them.”  An object painted in red, he continued, “appears more intense if placed next to a white or yellow rather than next to purple.”  King concludes that Leonardo had thus “discovered the law of complementary colors, observing that colors were the most intense if ‘surrounded by their strongest contrasts.’”

From an innovation standpoint, this suggests the importance for the practitioner to think about how some attribute of an innovation could be made stronger by the inclusion of a complementary aspect with it.

In other words, find something that can accompany one’s innovation so that the original item is strengthened by the addition of the second item, with the result adhering to the old adage of one plus one equals more than two.

Center Point

Perspective and symmetry were extremely important to Renaissance painters and this holds true for Leonardo’s masterpiece.  In fact, we can still see today a small nail hole in The Last Supper that marks the exact center point of the artwork, which presumably Leonardo used to position and align the various figures and components of his artwork.  The hole is located, King writes, at “the point on which all lines and all attention would converge: the face of Christ.”  Leonardo considered this to be “the ‘diminishing point’: the location on which all lines of sight ‘tend and converge.’”  Utilizing the “laws of linear perspective,” King notes, fifteenth century “[a]rtists learned to create spatially realistic scenes by making lines perpendicular to the picture plane (known as orthogonals) converge on a vanishing point, and by calculating the graduated scale at which horizontal lines (or transversals) recede into the distance.”  Although the explanation of this characteristic of the artwork sounds complex when explained words, the visual representation of this grid of lines radiating out from the center point of the work is much easier to understand.  From an innovation standpoint, this concept could be useful in terms of representing spatially the set of ideas captured during an ideation session.  The original topic of the ideation session could be considered the center point of the effort, then each new idea captured during the session could be mapped in grid form around the center point idea, using various attributes of those ideas as a means of presenting them on a diagram to show relationships and derive new insights about the original idea.

This could also show areas where we have a surplus of complementary ideas as opposed to areas where we need to invest more ideation time.

Work Pattern

Leonardo took several years to complete The Last Supper, with a start date of 1495 and a completion in 1498.  His working patterns on the painting were of particular interest to his sponsor, Ludovico Sforza, and Leonardo took much longer to complete his work than did Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, who worked on the Crucifixion scene at the other end of the refectory.  According to Matteo Nandello, the nephew of the prior of the refectory, Leonardo’s work ethic was somewhat erratic.  Matteo stated that on some days he had “seen Leonardo go to work early in the morning and climb on the scaffolding [and work] from sunrise to the dusk of evening, never laying down the brush, but continuing to paint without remembering to eat or drink.”  However, Matteo continued, “[o]n other days, Leonardo arrived early for work, though much less painting got done [because] he studied the mural for hours on end without touching his brushes, ‘considering and examining it, criticizing the figures to himself.’”  Some days Leonardo would arrive for work at noon, paint a couple of small areas, then disappear to his other work on an enormous clay sculpture of a horse (which he never actually completed).  When he was actively painting The Last Supper, King suggests that he likely did not follow the typical pattern of a fresco artist of the era by working “systematically across a wall or vault, painting adjacent patches of plaster on consecutive days.”  Rather, according to King, “his style was to work slowly and deliberately, layer by layer, touching and retouching, carefully contemplating the effects as he progressed.”  “When the time came to paint,” King notes, “he proceeded at a pace that was sometimes leisurely, sometimes frantic, and he no doubt worked on several areas of the mural at once, ranging from one end of his scaffold to another in the course of a single day.”

For the innovation practitioner, the lesson here is that the work of true genius and new thinking does not always follow a set pattern; and it’s important to vary one’s intensity of focus, from the micro to the macro, on a frequent basis to adhere to the larger objective of the overall project.

This also reminds us that it is not always possible for ourselves or our colleagues to “be innovative” during a set time, such as a meeting on innovation scheduled for an hour each week. Time spent is sheer contemplation, even without immediate signs of progress, can represent progress in and of itself.

Other Projects

Although we know now that Leonardo was one of the greatest painters of all time, during his lifetime his focus was scattered amongst other areas, including sculpture.  One area of particular interest to Leonardo was that of military equipment, as we can see in many of his famous designs for tanks, catapults, crossbows, and other implements of warfare.  During the period when he was working on The Last Supper, Leonardo happily took a break from his work in Milan and headed to Genoa to review the harbor’s fortifications.  Leonardo conducted testing to determine how projectiles could breach the walls with an eye towards improving the defenses of the city.  As King states, Leonardo’s “dreams of designing cannons, catapults, and giant crossbows, dormant these past few years, quickly revived as the swords began rattling on Milanese borders.”  Unfortunately, Leonardo would soon be let down.  King writes that “[i]f Leonardo hoped his talent and ingenuity were to be used for the defense of the realm, he must have been, as always, sorely disappointed: soon he was back at work on interior decorations.” The lesson here for the innovator is that although we are always told that passion is a critical part to driving our innovation work, it does not necessarily mean that we can only develop innovations in areas where were have our greatest passion for work.

Sometimes the work that seems more mundane can, in fact, lead to great developments that interest us less than those areas where we have a more intense desire to succeed.


Leonardo is famous for his handwriting style which he wrote in mirror script. Writing left-handed, he reversed his text so that the reader could only make out the message by viewing the document via a mirror or through the semi-transparent paper itself.  King posits that Leonardo did this not to hide his writings from posterity but, rather, for the simple reason that it was easier to write left-handed from right to left across the page to avoid smearing his hand in ink. King concludes, though, that this “reinforces the image of Leonardo as eccentric and unique: someone who inverted the accepted rules and conventions in order to pursue his own individual path.”  This use of mirror script led to an inadvertently comical episode in which Leonardo attempted to write in code as invaders from France were approaching Milan. Leonardo’s coded message instructed the recipient to “[f]ind Ingil and tell him that you [will] wait for him at Amor and will go with him to Ilopan.”  “The code,” King notes, “is disappointingly easy to crack, since Leonardo simply reversed the order of the letters: [Ingil is Ligni,] Amor is Roma and Ilopan is Napoli.” Furthermore, the fact that Leonardo wrote in mirror script meant that the encoded words in reverse order were actually easier to read than the regular text, which defeated the purpose of the encryption.

The lesson here is that even a sheer genius can sometimes benefit from the input of someone far removed from the day to day workings of the operation.

Whether this is a peer review or even a review by a complete outsider, one would think that the average person scanning over Leonardo’s coded letter would quickly spot the inadvertent disclosure of the coded words in the mirror scripting.


A final observation about Leonardo’s masterpiece is the unfortunate condition of the work after centuries of trials and tribulations.  As King states, “[i]f Leonardo’s style was superlative, his technique, sadly, was not.”  Although considered a fresco, Leonardo in fact did not paint in the standard fresco style.  “[T]he pigments,” King observes, “were not permanently bonded to the plaster, which meant they began flaking within a matter of a few years.”  Just across the refectory from Leonardo’s masterpiece sits Montorfano’s Crucifixion, which remains in an excellent state because it was done with the standard fresco technique of the era.  Leonardo’s work began falling to pieces within two decades after it was completed and has undergone a series of failed restorations, experienced challenges with humidity, suffered from kitchen smoke and flooding, was used by Napoleon’s forces as a horse stable, had doors cut into it by the friars at the refectory, was bombed by the Allies in World War II, and now sits in a state where perhaps 20 percent of the painting is original from Leonardo’s time and 80 percent is the work of the restorers. King notes that the painting is similar to the “ship of Theseus, the vessel carefully preserved by the Athenians, who eventually replaced every one of its rotting timbers and thereby caused philosophical disputes about whether or not it was still the same ship.” For the modern innovator, a possible lesson is that although innovation is important in methods, there are some things that represent the best way of accomplishing a goal that may not be innovative but work at a fundamental level.

The genius in Leonardo’s work was in the details in his subject matter, his use of perspective and structure in his design, his use of complementary colors, but not in his basic fresco technique.

Had he adhered to the same method used by Montorfano, perhaps the work would look very different from how it appears today.


Circling back to the consternation that his sponsor Ludovico Sforza certainly must have felt with the delays incurred by Leonardo in completing his masterpiece, we should remind ourselves that the creative process is not always something that can be encapsulated into a typical 9 to 5 workday.  Indeed, as King states, Leonardo “believed that originality and creativity were more important than economics or square feet.”  Leonardo told his sponsor that “‘men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least,’ adding that they are ‘thinking out inventions and forming in their minds the perfect ideas which they subsequently express and reproduce with their hands.’”  Although metrics are important in managing innovation work, it is important for us not to forget that there is as much art as science in what we do.


Ross King, Leonardo and the Last Supper (New York: Walker and Company, 2012).

Maria Konnikova, “Make a Mess of It: The Power of Ignoring Rules and Being Flexible Even When You Don’t Want To,” New York Times Book Review (October 16, 2016).

Tim Harford, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (New York: Riverhead Books, 2016).



image credit: quotesgram

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