From Apprentice Artist to Master: Art Lessons From Da Vinci

By Milan Art Institute on November 10, 2020
From Apprentice Artist to Master: Art Lessons From Da Vinci

Photo caption: “The Annunciation” was Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece. 

When you think of Leonardo da Vinci, it’s unlikely that you think of him as da Vinci, the apprentice artist. Instead, it’s likely that your mind wanders to his paintings, like the Mona Lisa, or his master drawings, like the Vitruvian man. 

However, da Vinci was, indeed, an apprentice artist one point in his life. Like most of the working artists during the Renaissance, da Vinci himself spent time learning old masters painting techniques from a master painter of his day, Andrea del Verrocchio. 

During those years, he learned the old masters painting techniques that we have come to associate with his work. More than a few art students, including some of ours, have learned important techniques from studying the work da Vinci left behind.

It is for this reason that we take a look at Leonardo da Vinci, the apprentice artist, to see what we may learn about becoming a master. 

A Short Bio About Leondaro da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance, was born in 1452 in Tuscany. He was the illegitimate son of a peasant girl, Caterina, and a Florentine notary, Piero da Vinci, and the oldest of his father’s 12 children. Da Vinci lived with his father and stepmother and received a rudimentary education in math, reading and writing. 

As was the custom during the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci became an apprentice under a master artist, who, in da Vinci’s case, was Andrea del Verrocchio. Interestingly enough, Verrocchio had also been an apprentice artist under master artist, Donatello. 

Like all the artists of his time, da Vinci learned how to draw like an old master by studying under a master. Da Vinci became Verrocchio’s apprentice when he was just 14 years old. Many art scholars cite da Vinci’s father’s standing in the community as the reason that the master artist secured such a good apprenticeship. 

According to History Extra, da Vinci’s father made a contract with Verrocchio. A standard artist-apprentice contract would require the apprentice artist to be diligent and honest in his work, which might include grinding paint pigments, priming paint panels and preparing the master artist's studio for the day. 

An Apprentice Artist Becomes a Master 

As da Vinci became more skilled, he would have taken on more difficult work, including helping Verrocchio with his paintings. In exchange for this, da Vinci would have been fed, clothed and housed for the six years of his apprenticeship. Eventually, Leonardo da Vinci became a paid collaborator of Verrocchio’s. 

It wasn’t unusual during the Renaissance for an assistant to help the master artist with a commission, though the contract for the commission usually stipulated what parts of the work could be done by the apprentice and what parts could be done by the master. 

In this case, Verrocchio was probably responsible for creating the faces and figures of the people in the painting, while da Vinci would have been responsible for the background. Da Vinci was assisting Verrocchio in this manner by the year 1473. 

Eventually, da Vinci completed his masterpiece “Annunciation,” which was the piece of art that he created to prove that he had become a master painter. 

Here’s how the Star Tribune explains the meaning of masterpiece. 

The term "masterpiece" originated in the Middle Ages, when apprentice artisans had to prove their skills by submitting exemplary work for approval by the guild that governed their trade -- carving, metalwork, enameling. If the piece demonstrated mastery of the craft, the apprentice would be promoted to master and authorized to train others.

“Annunciation” would have been presented to the Florence painters’ guild.

Da Vinci did, in fact, become a member of that guild in 1472, though he continued to work with Verrocchio for another four years. Da Vinci ultimately went out on his own, building up his own clientele, including an artist’s residency with the Duke of Milan.

It was during this time that the artist developed many of the stylistic elements that people would associate with him, including sfumato. This technique produced a smokey effect created by blending the edges of objects. 

By 1503, da Vinci would start the piece that he has become most associated with: the Mona Lisa. However, it would be a mistake to think that this once apprentice artist stuck to religious art. 

He eventually became known for his anatomy and military machine drawings. It is said that his work influenced both Michaelangelo, who was sometimes da Vinci’s rival, and Raphael. 

Five hundred years after da Vinci’s death, his work is still influencing apprentice and master artists alike. 

So the question for us is: How does someone become a master artist, like Leonardo da Vinci?

Video caption: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” sold at auction for $400 million dollars. It set a record as the most expensive piece of art ever sold at an art auction. 

Artist Apprentice Advice: How to Paint Like an Old Master

Although the Milan Art Institute is an online art school that provides training in modern art techniques, like mixed media collage, classical painting and drawing techniques form the foundation of our art workshops and programs.

As such, we recommend that aspiring master artists adopt the routines that the best apprentice artists, like da Vinci, kept throughout the ages. Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to adopt such a training regiment.

Video caption: Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” offers art students an excellent example of the Golden Ratio, a primary element in art composition.

Learn Art Theory and Art History: While you may have signed up for art school because you love to draw and paint, you may not have had much exposure to art theory and history. 

You’ll definitely spend time painting and drawing at art school. Ideally, you’ll draw, sketch and paint daily. However, it is because you learn the principles of art, like line, form, the Golden Ratio and more, that you’ll improve. 

Watching your painting and drawing demonstrations in class shows you how to properly construct a painting or drawing. It also teaches you how to use art materials properly. Art instruction also prevents you from developing bad habits that can inhibit your artistic growth.

Becoming a master artist also means that you take the time to learn about your heritage as an artist by studying about art history and the artists that make up art history. You can learn about art history by watching videos on YouTube, by attending classes at the local university, by reading art history books or by participating in programs, like our interactive Milan Art Community or the Mastery Program

Paint and Draw A Lot: There is no way around it. To learn how to paint like an old master, you have to put in the time. Professional artists paint for 40 hours a week. 

Painting this much allows them to gain mastery over their skill sets. It also puts them in the mind space to treat painting like a job that deserves regular hours. 

If you practice your craft consistently, ideally for 40 hours a week, like it’s a job, you’ll improve, too.

Work With an Art Mentor: Just as Leonardo da Vinci got feedback from his mentor, Andrea del Verrocchio, so, too, should you work with a mentor if you want to improve. We believe that getting feedback from a mentor is so important that we made it a basic tenant of our Mastery Program. 

The reality of the matter is it takes time to learn how to see like an artist sees and to develop the fine motor skills required to paint at a master level. You miss things as you’re learning. 

However, if you work with a mentor, you’ll learn to see your mistakes and to learn from them. This allows you to grow without losing sight of your goals.

Final Thoughts on Apprentice Artists Becoming Master Painters

During Leonardo da Vinc's lifetime, apprentice artists developed their careers by working with master artists. This included helping these artists with the production of studio commissions, studio housekeeping and other tasks. 

Emerging artists can work with a master artist during an art workshop or at weekend events, like conferences. It's better still if they can hone their skills in a program that pairs them with working professional artists. 

Such an arrangement helps them to develop da Vinci-level skills, like figure drawing and painting. Painting and drawing like the old masters requires discipline and hard work in order to learn how to create quality work. 

However, the sacrifice is worth it. Master art skills can be parlayed into a career as a professional artist if you're willing to learn about art theory, to put in lots of practice and to work with a mentor. 

Learn More About Becoming a Masterful Artist

5 Plein Air Painting Secrets & Techniques to Enrich Your Art

7 Things Artists Should Know When Choosing Their Brush

8 Practical Tips on How to Sell Your Art

Milan Art Institute
Milan Art Institute

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