At the beginning of the Scottish exhibition, a little sheet by Leonardo da Vinci takes visitors into the heart of Renaissance drawing as well as offering us a vivid glimpse of Leonardo’s own insatiable curiosity. It is a study of a dog’s paw drawn four times from slightly different angles as the artist searches out its characteristic structure.
It is the left forepaw, as we can see from the so-called dew claw, which corresponds to our thumb but has no obvious function in a quadruped: the dog walks on the four fingers of its hand, whose phalanges and their articulation Leonardo so carefully delineates.
The structural accuracy reminds us that this is the artist whose studies of human anatomy were pioneering as art and science so often converged, anticipating by two generations the first modern manual of anatomy, Vesalius’s encyclopedic De Humani corporis fabrica (1543).
But the curiosity and care we sense in this study also remind us that Leonardo was intensely aware of the connections of human and animal life.
The medium is typical of the Renaissance in general and of Leonardo in particular. Metalpoint — probably in this case silverpoint — is one of the most portable and efficient of all media for drawing, requiring neither ink and water nor even a penknife or sharpener. Once the stick of silver is shaped to the desired point, it can be used for months or years without further sharpening; on the other hand silver will not make a mark on uncoated paper, so sheets need to be prepared with a mixture of bone-ash and size or gouache. The Greats: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland. Part two: the drawings Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney. Until February 14.
Silverpoint drawings cannot be erased in the usual way — with a rubber today or with the soft crumb of bread in the past — but the surface can be wiped off with a damp cloth and recoated, so the medium is in practice an erasable one that was also suited to the practice drawings of students and the preparatory sketches of artists.
Leonardo recommended the