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5 Sketching Secrets of Leonardo Da Vinci

You can improve your sketching and paper prototyping by adopting some of the methods used Leonardo da Vinci in his sketch books.  Leonardo was a prolific sketcher, filling his journals with over 13,000 pages of notes and drawings.  These 5 sketching lessons will make you a better thinker.

Lesson #1: Sketch Your Ideas Out 4-5 Times

Study of Flowers

Leonardo frequently sketched things multiple times, showing an object from different perspectives or different stages of development.  Leonardo’s different sketches of flowers show some with leaves and others without leaves.  Some of the flowers are budding, while other flowers are mature.


  • To better understand, sketch it out multiple times.
  • Quantity leads to quality.
  • Explore from multiple angles and different stages of development.

Lesson #2: Use Annotations in Your Sketches

Study of Arms & Shoulders

Beside most of Leonardo’s sketches, you will find annotations about the about being sketched.  The annotations are, obviously, used to clarify the object being studied.  For example, the sketch called The Study of Arms and Shoulders shows four different drawings of the shoulder with annotation between the arms, which were literally the only place to put this information.

Did you know? Leonardo studied anatomy to help him with his brushstrokes for painting The Last Supper.


  • Leave room for annotations in your sketches.
  • Your annotations might answer a question for someone that sees your sketch.
  • Your annotations are memory joggers for you.

Lesson #3: Collaborate With Others When You Sketch

The Great Lady

Leonardo made his sketches individually, but he collaborated with other people to flesh out out the finer details.  Leonardo’s sketches of human anatomy were a collaboration with Marcantonio della Torre, an anatomist from the University of Pavia, and Leonardo. Their collaboration is important because it marries the artist with the scientist.

The agreement was for Leonardo to provide immaculate sketches, while Marcantonio would provide accurate accounting of the inner details (annotations and assumptions made by Leonardo).  Marcantonio agreed to have the Leonardo’s drawings published.  Ironically, one year later, Marcantonio would die of the Black Death.  Luckily, Leonardo’s sketches remained.

Did you know? The sketch called The Great Lady might be the first documented example of female anatomy.


  • In general, show your work to other people.
  • Collaborate with others when you sketch.
  • Collaborate with someone that will make your sketches better (more accurate, more imaginative).

Lesson #4: Engage Your Imagination

Leonardo’s Parachute

Leonardo drew things beyond nature and human anatomy.  His sketches include civil engineering projects (bridges, roads, maps), military objects (parachute, airplane, tank, machine gun), and robots (knight armor which had cranks to show movement).  In some cases, these imaginative objects would not be created for almost 500 years later.  The key is to engage your imagination.

Leonardo used his imagination because he was curious.  Leonardo once wrote:

Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?

Da Vinci was very curious about flying.  In his sketch book, you can find a page with the name: “Flying machines. The Flight of Genius!”  On this page, you will find sketches for a parachute, airplane, and glider.  Some scholars have postulated that Leonardo’s study of birds helped him with the design of the glider.

Did you know? Leonardo has an entry in his notebook about an unsuccessful flight test.


  • Sketch beyond your comfort zone (quantity helps you here)
  • Sketch multiple solutions around a problem area (example, flight)
  • Let ideas percolate, revisit your sketches

Lesson #5: Look for New Combinations

Da Vinci’s Ladder

Just as Leonardo engaged his imagination, he also sought out new combinations.  Build on existing concepts to come up with something different.  Force fit different things together.

Da Vinci’s sketch of a “Ladder” was meant to be used for scaling walls.  He took existing technology (spikes), then he adding some additional elements to modify these spikes into “rungs” for his ladder.

More importantly, Leonardo used a simplistic form of the Cornell Method of note taking in all his sketches.  In the Cornell method, you divide your paper into columns, where two columns—one larger for the body text (or sketch), and another that’s thinner for note taking, observations, and so on.

You can add more details for a sketch, create categories, tag your sketch, and literally make mental notes.  You can quickly scan the page, looking for keywords, then you can seek a new combination based upon a different sketch.

If you are doing collaborative sketching, you can capture ideas from several team members.  You can catalog the ideas using the Cornell Method.  You can seek out other combination later.  The important thing is to develop the habit of cataloging for the future, so you can make new combinations.


  • Seek new combinations with your individual sketches
  • Catalog your sketches using the Cornell Method to reuse them in the future
  • Seek combinations from your previous sketches


You can improve your sketching and idea generation by following these secrets from Leonardo Da Vinci. Hidden within his notebooks are a variety of ideas on painting, sketching, architecture, and life (in general).

These are my takeaways from reviewing his work. What do you think?

4 Responses

  1. David C. Dunkle

    These are great tips- I’m usually pretty lax in sketching in a way that can be useful later. These lessons will help me to remember the direction a sketch was going, and the details surrounding it, which are all important in using the sketch at a later time.

    1. David, do not be lax on sketching. It is a fundamental aspect of sketching. Recently, historians have uncovered 17 sketch journals by Pablo Picasso for one of his paintings! Leonardo sketched over 13,000 pages of sketches–he was probably the most prolific sketcher of all time.

      Consider your sketches as visual brainstorming. UX sketches are not doodles or flowcharts. UX sketches are visual problem solving to focus on the creative output. It is easy to be hard and it is hard to be easy. Sketching is your best tool to making your ultimate solution as easy as possible.

  2. Francisco De Souza

    Thanks, Brian! These tips gave me courage to use my sketchbook that i bought a long time ago and never drew a simple line. Now, i know why i’ll use it for.

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