Drawing Inspiration from da Vinci

This post is part of an ongoing series, “Taking Note,” which outlines the history and styles of note-taking. In this series, we explore how taking notes can improve your creativity and all the work you set out to accomplish.

For many of us, inspiration begins with a simple sketch.

Leonardo da Vinci, the most inspirational of all Renaissance figures, imagined the possibility of everything from flight to robotics. It was drawing and sketching that represented the most pivotal tools he used to bring those imaginings to life.

Earlier in this series, we tackled some of his note-taking styles that are easily adaptable in today’s digital world. But, we reserved some of his most vital skills for a post all its own— drawing, sketching, and mind mapping.

Here are some ways you can draw inspiration from one of our greatest minds.

Draw Your Inspiration

As early as 1505, da Vinci drew inspiration—mainly from birds—and formulated ideas into a notebook devoted to the study of flight. His Codex on the Flight of Birds contained over 30,000 words and 500 sketches that traced fundamentals that would eventually apply to the world’s first flying machine.

DaVinci Flight Notes

A page from da Vinci’s notes—his idea for a helicopter. From The New York Public Library

That notebook remains one of the most ground-breaking and important documents ever written about flight. It’s a treatise that not only planted the seeds of how man would fly, but also outlined principles of propulsion that paved the way for space travel. The notebook also contained concepts for such ‘futuristic’ ideas as the parachute, helicopter, and glider.

Many of the lessons that da Vinci drew from his drawing can be incorporated into our life and help bolster our personal and professional pursuits.

Draw from real life. Da Vinci saw great potential in the nature around him. Birds helped him see the possibility of flight, but he also honed skills drawing moving objects like water and groups of people.

Key into the subtleties of motion. The chaos and disorder of moving things teach us how to work with both the hand and mind, and to make strategic choices about what to draw. Artwork, much like real life work, is all about selectivity.

Pay attention to detail. Da Vinci was one of the first to map the anatomy of the human body with complex and intricate drawings. In fact, some of these drawings are still used today in medical texts. His drawings on the human skull and the spinal column are still considered accurate and were hundreds of years ahead of their time.

Tap your intuition. Da Vinci had an innate understanding of form and function. A talented sculptor and draftsman, he had an ability to tap his intuitive understanding of the human form and connect his observations to anatomic mechanics.

Dabble in other areas. At the same moments he was tackling the codex on flight in 1505, da Vinci was also working on painting his iconic Mona Lisa.

Draw many times. Practice makes perfect, and in drawing, it takes many tries to get something right. Da Vinci studied other master artists, and created many iterations of his sketches until he was satisfied.

DaVinci Mechanical Notes

da Vinci’s sketches and notes captured ideas that were hundreds of years ahead of their time.  From The New York Public Library

Mind Map Your World

In today’s world, we can take a cue from da Vinci’s incessant need to draw to understand his world.

Use mind maps to capture ideas, set personal or professional goals, set daily, weekly, or monthly plans, and other thought cataloging. Rather than writing them down point-by-point, try doodling or sketching them out. Like da Vinci, you may be surprised at what develops.

Mind maps may be the most creatively powerful note-taking format. Traditionally, they work well on paper, but with digital tools today like Evernote, it’s possible to adopt a flexible framework that embraces digital, paper-based systems (or, both together).

Mind maps favor the creative and visual right-brain thinkers, and that’s probably why da Vinci was so successful. His note-taking combined the worlds of art and science, logic and imagination and created a super connected way of whole-brain thinking. It enhanced his ability to learn, and it also has lessons to all of us about how we acquire and keep knowledge at the same time as honing in on our creative aspirations and ideas.


You don’t need to be a creative genius or an illustrious painter to carry on da Vinci’s note-taking legacy. You just have to do what he did every day—connect all your ideas, thoughts, observations, and sketches to your note-taking world. He did it using a unique ‘tree-branch’ structure (which evokes the traditional mind map), but he also referenced sketches with detailed notes to bring them all together. By looking at his notes, da Vinci was able to make instant connections visually.

Here are some tips for mind-mapping you can do on your own:

  • So many possibilities. Start with a blank sheet of paper or a Moleskine notebook. Flip the page horizontally for premium workspace.
  • Start with the main idea. At the center of the page, jot down the central theme of your work. A keyword or short sentence will do.
  • Branches, twigs, and leaves bear fruit. Your main theme creates a hub from which branches flow, representing different concepts and ideas. You can illustrate the branches with annotations, images, keywords, or shorthand.
  • It’s all about the lines. Use thicker lines to represent more important ideas and thinner lines that call out sub-points. Symbols like bullet points also help, as do colors or highlights.
  • Be creative. Use your own personal flair and style to link your ideas to the main theme. If that is original sketches, diagrams, or smiley faces—then go for it.
  • Structure is key. When you’re reviewing your mind map later, you want to identify the material in a cohesive way. Think of a structure that works for you that is clear, easy to understand, and shows information in a hierarchy, like most important to least important.


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