The life and times of Leonardo da Vinci are vividly imagined by award winning New Zealand author/ illustrator Donovan Bixley in this stunning literary picture book. A Portrait of Leonardo is out now from Upstart Press.
This book has been a labour of love for you for a long time, what was the origin? Also, why Leonardo?
It’s literally been a lifelong obsession, that actually goes way back before I was born … in the 1960s some Leonardo notebooks that had been lost due to a library filing mistake for 252 years were rediscovered. Over the next decade these notebooks were restored and toured in a worldwide exhibition. My dad saw this exhibition in San Francisco and brought the accompanying exhibition books back to little old me in little old Taupō.
As a kid who loved to draw, I was so fascinated with this amazing guy that I’d just discovered – I remember lying on the floor and just nerding-out at his ability to draw flowing water. Over the last 40 years, the more I’ve learned, Leonardo has just become more and more fascinating.
Actually – there’s a little side story to that background too. 25 years ago when I first decided that I wanted to become a picture book creator, I had this crazy idea that the first thing I wanted to do was a big glorious picture book for adults that would sell all around the world and win lots of awards and accolades – just a little bit ambitious. I planned this amazing trilogy of the three greatest artists in the three great arts – Leonardo, Shakespeare and Mozart. It was an outrageous plan for a nobody from Taupō who hadn’t even made a single book yet!
Leonardo was always this hugely daunting figure to tackle, so over 16 years I created my biographies on Mozart and Shakespeare. After that I finally felt I was ready to take on my greatest hero. It’s quite incredible, after all those years to finally have that vision come to fruition with all three books complete.
Where there any major challenges along the way?
There was this big period about 15 years ago when I thought, ‘I’m never going to get this book on Leonardo done’. I’d just finished my biography of Mozart – and Mozart is such an amazing gregarious character, he’s all there right in your face with his personality. At that stage I was just feeling the weight of Leonardo so much – there was sooooo much I didn’t know. There was soooo much to know. And on top of that Leonardo is this rather austere character. In all his notebooks he holds himself at arm’s length and presents this formal kind of guy who’s always trying to prove himself to some imaginary academics who are looking down on him: ‘I, Leonardo will prove to you that this is correct and by my findings show …’ etc etc.
To be honest, after Mozart, I was wondering how I could get inside this character. I took a long time off and completed my Shakespeare biography, and then after that came back to Leonardo with renewed passion. I realised that big challenge of Leonardo’s personality was going to be my mission … to find those tiny chinks in his armour, a slip of an emotion here, a quirky anecdote there, a snide remark in the margins – finding those moments is what took years of research.
This was my way into Leonardo, and those tiny moments became the gateway to images of him and his personality. As much as I am fascinated with how amazing Leonardo is I’m equally as fascinated with how he’s just like us and how we can connect with his passions and his success and his failures. My paintings too became a real gateway to show readers a Leonardo who was really human.
Tell us a bit about how long you've worked on / your research / process?
I guess I’ve been collecting ideas on Leonardo since I was a kid. It was always a process of reading endless books and thinking, as a fellow artist, how I saw things differently from those academic tomes. It actually worked out brilliantly that I left Leonardo to last, because I’d had the experience of doing Mozart and Shakespeare (big subjects to tackle) … but I’d also gained the artistic skills to do things that I could only have imagine 25 years before.
I’ve been really fortunate along the way. About 8 years ago I’d been chatting to Joy Cowley about this far off dream project I wanted to do on Leonardo, then out of the blue I got a parcel from her … she’d given me her complete English translations of Leonardo notebooks – an invaluable resource for sure. At many points over the past 25 years I’d wondered if I could ever make a career as an author and illustrator, let alone finish this project, then in 2017 I was awarded the Mallinson Rendel Illustrators Laureate Award from the New Zealand Arts Foundation. It was one of those awards that come completely out of the blue, and it came just at a time when I was (once again) contemplating going and getting a real job!
Having completed Shakespeare in 2015, I’d been seriously working on Leonardo for about a year and a half and the Laureate Award came at just the right time, allowing me to spend a month in Italy following in Leonardo’s footsteps. I’d been dreaming of this trip my whole life and there were incredible highlights, like spending half an hour alone with Leonardo’s masterpieces in the Uffizi Gallery, wandering up the ancient olive groves to Leonardo’s birth house, or finding out, quite accidentally, that our air B’n’B was directly across the lane from where Leonardo lived and worked in the centre of Florence.
Another huge helping hand that came my way was a wonderful grant from Creative New Zealand to compete the illustrations. After all those years of research and never feeling that I knew enough to make a book, I still had the illustrations to do. These alone took thousands of hours work – if it hadn’t been for CNZ I would still be slowly working my way through them now.
How are you feeling about it now it's finished?
A mixture of relief and sadness. Leonardo’s been such a big part of my life over the past 6 years. I always felt he was beside me there — it’s like having an imaginary friend. But all the research was pretty intense and now I have time to clear my brain and move on to all the other amazing ideas that have been jostling around in my head, waiting for a chance to get out into the world.
I’m always amazed when I look back at my work. It feels even more odd with Leonardo, this project I’d dreamed about, and envisioned 25 years ago. I’m so proud of this book, it looks like something I would have seen in a bookshop and said, ‘Man, I wish I could do a book like that!’ If I could go back in time I’d have just told myself, ‘It’ll happen. It’ll just take decades of tenacity and dedication’.
What do you hope people will get from the book?
Through my whole life I’ve always joked to myself that Leonardo has become this archetypal cliche version of what a genius should look like … an old bearded man shuffling around in a candle-lit room surrounded by his thousands of notebooks … what I call ‘Renaissance Gandalf’.
I really hope that my book presents to the world a vision of the Leonardo I’ve come to know through my years of research – the curious child, the arrogant teenage upstart, the fantastical day–dreamer, a hilarious sharp-witted entertainer, a procrastinating painter, and a bloody–minded scientist who was defiant of authority and the status quo. He was a colourful character with a fiercely independent personality and one of the greatest gay icons who ever lived.
I also hope I’ve managed to capture some of the vast array of things he achieved, beyond those commonly know conceptions (and misconceptions) that make Leonardo so amazing.
Find your copy of A Portrait of Leonardo here or at your local bookshop or library.