Technique: How to Paint Like da Vinci

By Yanusz Gilewicz

Unfinished 'Adoration of the Magi' with detail from 'Madonna with Child' by Leonardo da Vinci final step (#7) of re-creation of 'Madonna with Child' by Yanusz Gilewicz

The most challenging aspect of re-creating Leonardo da Vinci’s work is understanding how he was able to generate both beauty and mystery, since beauty without mystery can become very boring very quickly. According to da Vinci, the most skilful painter is the one who is able to convey the illusion of “three-dimensionality” on a flat surface. This technique can be only achieved by capturing the play of light on the surface of a painting, so enabling light and shadow to evoke an imperceptible change in the variations of tone. This process, called chiaro-scuro and sfumato, produces recessions and projections of relief. “Relief”, da Vinci writes, “is the very soul of painting”. Painting should represent the world “in terms of volume” and not “in terms of linearity”.

The painting process should begin with “SEEING”. In order to understand and feel any work of art the artist must learn how to SEE. Extraordinary patience and time are required to develop this ability. As the painting process unfolds, the painter must maintain a heightened sensitivity so that he will be able to see the subtle differences between tones as he applies those tones to the panel.

Step 1 re-creation of 'Madonna with Child' by Yanusz Gilewicz

I begin a painting by preparing a wood panel (I paint on wood since canvas is too porous for the chiaro-scuro and sfumato technique). The best wood panels are as smooth as marble. First, I apply a white undercoating that acts as a screen and serves as a source of light. It is crucial that the undercoating is not overloaded with too much opaque color. Usually I place up to four layers of white on the surface. After applying each layer, I then sand the surface of the image with 320 grit sandpaper to sustain the smoothness of the panel.

The next step is to render a drawing on the dry, white undercoating with fine sable brushes or sepia color pencil. While there are a variety of ways the initial drawing can be created, I recommend the use of a grid that will divide the entire panel into equally divided squares. Once the rough, overall image is transferred to the panel, the grid is removed. Next, the drawing is refined via a red-brown tone since that shade has a medium color bias. It is much easier to approach the lightest and darkest tones by tending toward the medium shades rather than by shifting from the lightest to the darkest, or vice versa.

Step 2 re-creation of 'Madonna with Child' by Yanusz Gilewicz  Step 3 re-creation of 'Madonna with Child' by Yanusz Gilewicz

The beginning of the painting is the most important part of the da Vinci process. Timing is absolutely crucial during this stage while the paint is wet. So long as the panel remains wet, I am able to control the results and make corrections. With enough time, a “window of opportunity” allows me to remain objective in my judgment. I must make sure that I am able to finish this step before the paint is dry! As I work with the single tone-base, my aim is to achieve a monochrome rendering of the painting to extra fine-tune the light values. There is not much contrast at this stage and the painting should appear pale. To achieve this effect, I attempt to keep the painting on the light side of the color spectrum. At this point, patience and sensitive deliberation are crucial to the process since the layers of color applied to the panel must appear to be translucent. All lines that define the form from its background in this preliminary drawing are being absorbed into the single-color base. I must have enough time to “lock-in” the relationship between the light and the shadow while making make sure that the subtle balance between tones is established. Then I wait until the panel is dry.

During the next step I continue to work with the same single-color by adding another layer of that color to the panel. The density of the tone is then increased. The second layer causes the previous layer to appear slightly darker. Since I am using very transparent and diluted colors, the second and third layers still “show through” the white undercoating. It is extremely important to remember that during the entire process of layering the colors the white undercoating should remain visible until the end of the process. Of course, that rule also applies to those areas of the painting that will be the brightest, the so-called “highlights”. In the parts of the painting that will be the mid-shadows, shadows, and the darkest tones, the colors laid layer upon layer gradually become opaque and the white undercoating will disappear.

Step 4: re-creation of Step 5: re-creation of 'Madonna with Child' by Yanusz Gilewicz

Is it possible to selectively layer a color on just the areas that are supposed to be darker or over the entire panel to keep the lightest areas of the painting separate from the darker applications as the color layering progresses? The answer is that color must be layered onto the entire panel. But in order to keep the lightest areas from being contaminated, a medium (a liquid that dilutes color while creating a near-transparency in the pigment) must be applied to those areas one step prior to layering on of the new color. By layering color onto the entire panel, the thickness of the painting, which can be 20-plus layers deep by the end of the process, will become uniform in all areas.

As I work “my way upward” by applying one layer upon another, each a very thin layer of paint that is unmixed with the white color and is as smooth and fluid as possible, the end result is free of brush strokes. Working with a monochromatic range of colors by building them layer upon layer, very precise effects and subtle changes in tone can be achieved. I am ultimately able to create an effect in which light seems to pass through the painting as if through stained glass. As light reaches beneath the primed surface, it reflects back to the viewer’s eye and creates the illusion that the light is emanating from the image itself. The next step before applying local color involves checking the relationships between highlights, mid-shadows, and shadows in the darkest part of the painting. The quality of the work depends on the proper distribution of light and shadows, a process that builds projections and recessions in the relief. As more of those qualities become imperceptible to the eye, the more mysterious and beautiful the painting becomes. Then, there is such an emotional bond between the painter and the painting, it is possible to lose objectivity and not to be able to “push further” by going beyond that imaginary “line.” At this point, one of da Vinci’s remedies for analyzing his work was to view it in a mirror (I still highly recommend that method) so that the inverse image can be more closely studied in a different context. Another effective tool I use is black and white photography that gives me instant feedback on the tonal values of the light. This immediate check provides a base point before the application of additional local colors. When the tonal nuances are locked in, I can apply any color without fear of destroying the subtle qualities of the painting.

final step (#7) of re-creation of 'Madonna with Child' by Yanusz Gilewicz

The next step is relatively easy, but I have to remember that I must use local colors in thin layers, applying one upon another so that the end process is not rushed. I carefully focus my attention on details so that every inch of the painting is equally attended to and treated. Then, only two more steps remain in the process: one involves the application of the final, and super-sensitive highlights, and the last, my personal secret that I only share with my closest apprentice.

Thanks to modern technology, I can increase the illusion of depth in a painting by using fast drying materials that will set overnight. Because of that quicker drying I can increase the amount of layers on the panel while expanding the illusion of depth and three-dimensionality. Every layer that is added gives the image more vibrancy and illumination. (In fact, in the not-too-distant future, by refining this process even further, I believe I will be able to create semi-holographic paintings.) At the same time, light rays reach through the layers of the painting to the white undercoating and then reflect that light back. As the light traverses the numerous layers, every layer the light penetrates makes the light appear less and less like a straight-line and more and more like a sine wave. Ultimately, the image appears to be lifelike and “vibrates.” Contours define the form from its background, it becomes softer and the depth of the painting is increased. I remember staring at the “Lady with Ermine” once with a profound feeling of seeing not someone “painted,” but a real person. To this day I am totally spellbound and overwhelmed by the phenomenon. I suspect that da Vinci’s painting required knowledge of the nature of light and how it plays on human, visual perceptions. He was the first human in history to create a hologram, an advanced form of photography that allows an image to be recorded three dimensionally.

For those interested in learning more about the da Vinci application please contact me for private lessons, or for workshops: or 646-724-3539.