All ideas have more weight when they are written down. There is less of a chance of them being forgotten, and a better chance of certifying whose idea it was in the first place.
Most notable artists seem to have made the most of this concept. Written records for potential artistic ventures exist for many members of the art world.
Perhaps the most well-known example is Leonardo Da Vinci, the Renaissance powerhouse. Literally thousands of pages have been devoted to his creative outpourings. He started using them in the mid-1480s, and by the time he died, they were left to his assistant, Francesco Melzi.
Da Vinci chronicled virtually every thought that occurred to him: ‘notes, jottings, sketches, doodles and musings, including lists of books he read and even scraps of financial records.’ These notes give us such a remarkable insight into the workings of his very stimulated mind.
It is believed that Da Vinci was the first person to challenge the Biblical account of the flood, having jotted down observations of the dispersion of animal fossils and the erosion of river valleys. He concluded that the fossils could not have been left by a flood – a concept at odds with the well-known Bible story.
Jean Paul Richter, art historian and documentary scholar on Leonardo Da Vinci, explained that the notes of the master created, ‘the picture of a rationalist.’
Of course, Da Vinci is not the only artist to leave behind a written record of his artistic ideas. Other artists have also documented their creative plans.
Graham Sutherland is one such artist, whose notebooks have been digitised by the Tate. Fiona McLees, paper conservator at the Tate, wrote about the process of conserving the sketchbooks. Her blog is a testimony to Sutherland’s freedom of thought when it comes to his notebooks:
“Sutherland used a very wide variety of books, ranging across many sizes and formats: wire spiral-bound, sewn, with perforated tear-off pages, cheap lined notebooks, quality artist’s sketchbooks… Often the covers had been torn off or sometimes showed evidence of having been used as a palette or testing area.”
This creative freedom just as easily applies to what lies inside the notebooks as well. A “rough-and-ready approach” can be found, with “extra pages stuck in and additional objects glued to pages.” Clearly there are no limits to some people’s thinking. Maybe it’s this very freedom of thought which places Sutherland on-par with Da Vinci. The Italian genius was renowned for his imagination and logic, as it was this that spilled into his work and made him well known. Sutherland exhibits a similar quality, and may therefore deserve more renown than he currently has.
What’s all the more interesting about Sutherland is the speed at which he wrote in his notebooks. According to a Gallerie Beeson catalogue entry written by Angus Stewart, “he filled notebooks with sketches he recorded at speed, driven by an energy that was difficult to quiet”. This says a lot about the ideas of a genius – energy is required to sustain them. Surely this is worth bearing in mind for all aspiring geniuses: energy helps.
Another known note-taker is Vincent Van Gogh, whose notebooks are explored by Mary Oldfield in her book The Secret Museum. It is interesting to note that it was only in his final notebook – “an elegant one with a linen jacket and a tie to keep it closed” – that Van Gogh documented the first version of Sunflowers (1888). Sometimes, our best ideas come later than we expect. Maybe it’s worth drawing attention to the tie that kept the notebook closed – did this merely serve a practical purpose, or did Van Gogh want to keep his work secret? We may never know now. Van Gogh was a troubled man who was used to rejection, so perhaps this may be a plausible theory.
One thing that can be gathered from Van Gogh’s notebooks, and has been pointed out in a blog post by writer Katherine Tyrell, is that contrary to the popular image of Van Gogh being a “spontaneous artist” who was “averse to rigid rules and thorough preparation”, he was actually “organised and systematic” and “never ever stopped studying art seriously”. Which just goes to show that, whatever preconceptions people may have of the work of a genius, a proper and thorough examination will provide a more informed, and perhaps surprising, outlook.
In any case, it stands to reason that all creative ideas, however seemingly trivial they may appear at the time of conception, should be written down. Who knows where they may end up? As Mary Oldfield notes on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers:
“Having never sold a painting in his life, at that moment, Van Gogh would never have conceived of a time when his sunflowers would be instantly recognised across the planet.”