Drawing Basics: Meet Your Master and Then Throw Him Away

12 Jan 2015
For this brush and ink drawing, I applied what I learned from da Vinci, but moved in my own direction.
For this brush and ink drawing, I applied what I learned from
da Vinci, but moved in my own direction.

Sad is the disciple who does not advance his master.
--Leonardo da Vinci

Maybe you remember--in my earlier post when I recommended that you choose a master--I remarked that it was generally a good idea for the master you chose to be safely dead. There's a reason for that.

Any sufficiently accomplished living teacher puts his or her students in danger of turning into slavish copyists of the teacher. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, taught a generation of students to design just like him. They became convinced that there was one right way to make a house, and that it was the way Frank Lloyd Wright made a house. Who they were as individual architects was left behind. They became almost cultists. This was not necessarily Frank Lloyd Wright's fault. Of course he thought he was right. The problem was that working side by side with him proved overpowering for many of his students.

Da Vinci says that to do right by your mentor or master you must "advance" him or her. The simple reading of this is, "become better than your master." And that would be good, but it is not always possible. Another interpretation is that you should move to a different place on the map from that of your master. Da Vinci, one of the greatest masters, is saying, "Learn everything you can from your master--but then abandon him. Become your own artist."

This is easier if your master is dead to begin with. A dead master's work is as complete as it will ever be. You are at liberty to peruse the entire body of work, to consider the words, to reflect on the painting or drawing ideas, to steep yourself in the philosophy of their approach to art. You can turn it all over in your mind, for years if you need it--as I needed it. And then, when you are done, there is nobody around to suggest, even subtly, that doing it your own way is doing it wrong.

Choose a master--master your master--and then throw away your master. You will need to depend on their inspiration when you are a student when you are learning how to draw or paint. But when you are ready to depend on your own inspiration, when you have the tools you need to execute your vision in the world, then you have graduated, and you become your own master.



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on 22 Jul 2011 3:12 PM

Well put, Daniel.  An excellent post!

KatPaints wrote
on 24 Jul 2011 11:03 AM

Well, I still disagree. This blanket position may work exceptionally great for some people, but not always. Let's consider the not always group. The disadvantage of a dead artist is that you do not grasp their actual temperament and cannot observe the way that they interact with the world. I have viewed/met many many artists/painters works and seeing the actual person along with the art is rarely a surprise. A person's personality, temperament, exactness, boldness, timidness, social standing, etc. seemingly make themselves visible in their work. Even a person's OCD or mental illnesses can be seen in their art.  A child's level of intelligence or learning disabilities can be found in their drawings. Art therapists are really good at identifying this of course. Creating art involves so much more than technique. Living artist remind us of this.

Also, someone else decided that this dead artist was more important than all the other artists living at that time. With living artists, you get to decide who is doing something worthwhile whether it is recognized or not. The internet has bombarded us with artists' images from across the world. With wise eyes, you can find gems everywhere.

I may admire Sargent's bold simplicity of strokes. I may love the impressionism  and high key painting of an artist younger than me, Bato Durgarzhapov. While I like the contemporary themes and subject matter of a particular illustrator. I can be inspired by many sources. Life is my inspiration, while it still gets filtered through my mental capacity, ability to properly perceive, my knowledge, my skill, my current day, etc. The challenge is to transcend what you see and somehow bring your own vision and spark to it.

Technique is only one aspect in the creation of art. Bringing your vision, visual voice, or position to the world is another. Slavishly copying someone's style comes from a person's insecurities to find their own unique form of expression.  In the end, your never as good as the master because you are inauthentic. This can happen if someone has a master dead or alive. Instead I think it is important to find someone or many people who call to you personally or offer support in an area in which you feel a need to improve. Then step back and ask whether I am expressing myself passionately or doing what is popular or tried and true.

dmaidman wrote
on 25 Jul 2011 8:57 AM

Sarah - thanks so much!

Kat - I'm not actually sure we disagree about anything. I've never claimed to have the one true solution, or even that there's one problem that needs solving. Your method is perfectly good for solving many problems, and I have used large parts of it myself.

KatPaints wrote
on 26 Jul 2011 5:43 PM

Good I'm glad to hear this. Considering one of your previous articles, I was starting to think that you were promoting dead people as masters. Yep, everyone and everything can potentially be a good teacher.

on 13 Jan 2015 10:51 AM


I agree with you. There is much to be learned from the works of accomplished artists living and dead. In the rush toward personal expression and creativity, many young artists strike out on their own path before they are aware of where they are going.

However, I am a bit disappointed. After Kat's comments, I thought we could have a passionate exchange here! Daniel, you are much too nice. The other day we almost had a bar fight over Lucian Freud's skin.

KAT— Even though I have learned a lot from dead artists, I agree with a lot of your thoughts. Communicating with the dead is a gift. Also, I am one of those guys who studies  paintings and the reproductions in art books and seldom bothers to remember the names of the artists. That didn't help me any in Art History but it's a technique—a precaution—against becoming too attached to any one artists work. In fact, I had to Google Bato Durarzhapov to find out who he was.