|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.