Detail from Sketch of a Youth (Study for the Head of Saint James) with Designs for Fortifications, 1493. Photograph: National Gallery/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II/The Royal Collection, 2011

In the National Gallery’s stupendous exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, drawings hang alongside paintings. On white paper yellowed by time, or on paper he coloured blue or red, Leonardo would draw in ink, chalk, or using the technique known as metal point, in which a fine nib is pressed against a sheet of paper coated with calcinated bone. The precise yet endlessly suggestive works that result from his unrivalled draughtsmanship are just as compelling as his paintings. In this exhibition they are shown beautifully, perfectly lit, with plenty of space between them.

But what are these drawings – which we are exploring in a weekly Guardian interactive series that starts today and runs for the duration of the show – for?

They are never just “preparatory studies” for paintings. That tedious terminology doesn’t apply to Leonardo. Even the ones that did lead to paintings stand up as magnificent works in their own right. What they all have in common is the fact that they come from the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, those miraculous and elusive monuments to the human mind.


Jonathan Jones