Natural Systems: Leonardo’s Energy Charge

At one of the recent Leonardo talks at the National Gallery, artist Michael Craig-Martin made an interesting point about Leonardo’s obsession with natural systems. In his quest to uncover the essence of natural perfection, he observed and catalogued organic structures such as storms, rivers, and human circulation. Beyond that, what Craig-Martin is excited about was his search for the living energy within those systems.

A Deluge, with a Falling Mountain and Collapsing Town

A Deluge, with a Falling Mountain and Collapsing Town, Leonardo, c.1515, The Royal Collection, Windsor

It’s this charged energy captured within his drawings that is wonderful to contemplate. His Deluge drawings, (a series of drawings depicting apocalyptic weather c1514-18) are the first, according to Michael Craig-Martin, to attempt to depict not just storms, but the energy of storm systems. These drawings are firstly informed by a rigorous scientific understanding, drawn from Leonardo’s own observations as well as scholarly sources. He observed a tornado over Milan in 1489 and was able to assimilate the experience in both a scientific and artistic sense.

His stirring description of the Milanese storm cloud is preceded by a meteorological analysis of wind formation, in which he concluded that ‘it is necessary for a great quantity of air to rush together in order to create a cloud, and since it cannot leave a vacuum the air rushes in to fill up with itself the space left by the air first condensed and then transformed into a dense cloud’1

From a place of understanding, Leonardo strove to express the living energy of the phenomenon.

‘Make the clouds driven by the impetuosity of the wind and flung against the lofty mountain tops, and wreathed and torn like waves beating upon rocks; the air itself terrible from the deep darkness caused by the dust and fog and heavy clouds.’2

While other artists might render the surface patterns of nature, Leonardo needed to visualise the dynamic structures comprising nature before he could commit to an artistic interpretation. But once understanding was achieved, his artistic skill was channelled with freedom, almost abandon to the expression of the essential energy of nature. This can be observed in the fluid, sometimes electric dynamism of horses, plants, hair, and even drapery.

The Sea God Neptune commanding his quadriga of sea horses

The Sea God Neptune commanding his quadriga of sea horses, Leonardo, c1502-04, The Royal Collection, Windsor

Study of the Star of Bethlehem

Study of the Star of Bethlehem, Leonardo, c1506, The Royal Collection, Windsor

Young Woman (so-called pointing Lady)

Young Woman (so-called pointing Lady), Leonardo, 1516, The Royal Collection, Windsor

One of the drawings Craig-Martin focused on is the Sketch for the Virgin and Child, St Anne and St John the Baptist, a compositional design for the cartoon of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, at the National Gallery, London.

Sketch for the Virgin and Child, St Anne and St John the Baptist

Sketch for the Virgin and Child, St Anne and St John the Baptist: technological designs, Leonardo, 1506-08, British Museum, London

The drawing is one I’d never have paid much attention to before this talk, finding it uncomfortably muddied and tangled. But from a perspective of energy it becomes interesting. The tangle of contours is like an attempt to express the relational energy between these characters – so bound up in each other’s fates and fears. It’s hard to see where one set of legs begins and the other ends – but perhaps that’s the point. They are intertwined on many levels. This can also be seen, although tamed to an extent in the full scale cartoon. I haven’t really thought about why the cartoon unsettles me slightly – but it may well be the unstable tangle of legs.

Craig-Martin also made the point that Leonardo’s ability to capture the very aliveness of natural form is possible only as a result of his formidable drawing skills. This is essentially why artists develop drawing skills – to capture ideas and energies without thinking about the technical barriers of doing so. Leonardo’s ability to render his inner thoughts with such grace and ease is an essential strand of his genius.

As a side note, this offers fuel to the current debate sparked by David Hockney about the importance of craftsmanship in contemporary art. (Lack of craftsmanship is one criticism that can’t be levelled easily at game artists.)

Leonardo’s exploration of the energy within natural forms can be understood in context with his ideas about the soul within the human form, also dissected and mapped with precision.

‘if this, man’s external form, appears to thee marvellously constructed, remember that it is nothing as compared with the soul that dwells in that structure; for that indeed, be it what it may, is a thing divine’3

This angle on Leonardo’s quest to embody weather leaves me with a disappointment, however:  the lack of a great storm painting or even gentle rain fall painting by Leonardo. In fact it’s difficult to find any rain in 15th century Renaissance painting. I’m imagining a spring shower full of hyper real water drops, van der Weyden style. The only 15th century rain I  can recall is Gossaert’s incredible Danae, featuring a shower of gold.

On a more profane level, the integration of natural systems such as rain, fog and flowing water into contemporary 3D art can serve to energise an environment. A game can feel more alive, and the experience more immersive. Even the word immerse means to ‘dip or submerge in a liquid’.4

‘Inclement weather is by no means new to video games. Rain fell in the opening moments of 1991′s Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It falls regularly during the ever-flowing day and night cycles of the recent Grand Theft Auto games. Even among massively multiplayer games, World of Warcraft has forerunners, including Final Fantasy XI, where each day (lasting about an hour in real life) can bring storms, and in EverQuest, in which some characters have the power to repel the weather.’5

Unlike 15th century collections, beautiful rainy imagery is not hard to find in game galleries.

rain in Myst

Myst V: End of Ages, published 2005 by Ubisoft

rain in Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, published 2011by Bethesda Softworks

rain in games

Heavy Rain, published 2010 by Sony for Playstation

rain in Final Fantasy XIII-2

Final Fantasy XIII-2, published 2011 by Square Enix

In order to create these stunning environments, game developers needed to first understand physics. As it would take too much time and rendering power to manually animate thousands of water droplets, a swarm of drops needs to be programmed to move. Like Leonardo’s study of fluid dynamics, programmers needed to understand particle physics (as well as fluid dynamics) in order to create game engines capable of natural weather effects. The effects are never a 100% accurate simulation of real particle behaviour – bearing in mind the rendering power of gaming devices, but it’s safe to say that calculations are informed by particle physics.

Game developers don’t always recreate the wheel with every game, and frequently use the particle physics capabilities within off-the-shelf engines such as Havoc, which is now being used for mobile game development.

Weather is increasingly used in games, not just to enhance environmental immersion, but as an integrated aspect of gameplay. The racing game F1 2010 links the weather conditions to car handling so closely that the weather is almost like a living character. This can only be achieved by a devotion to the physics underpinning weather in combination with intense subjective observation. This then frees designers to unleash the power of the elements on players. It’s almost as if weather has become the soul of the game, breathing new life into the racing experience.

Leonardo lives on in the strangest of places.

F1 2010 game

F1 2010, published 2010 by Codemasters


1. Martin Kemp, Leonardo (da Vinci), Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man,Oxford University Press, (2006), p. 316-317, quoting Il Codice di Leonardo da Vinci della Biblioteca di Lord Leicester in Holkham Hall, ed. G. Calvi, Reale Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere, Milan, (1909), 28r.

2. The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Complete, by Leonardo Da Vinci, Translated by Jean Paul Richter, 1888, Volume 1, section 605, Accessed via Project Gutenberg Jan 2012.

3. Ibid., section 1140.


5. Game Developers Unleash A Storm On World Of Warcraft Players


  • The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Complete, by Leonardo Da Vinci, Translated by Jean Paul Richter, 1888 accessible via Project Gutenberg
  • Universal Leonardo Leonardo’s life and artistic concerns curated by Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace


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6 Responses to “Natural Systems: Leonardo’s Energy Charge”

  1. I’m so pleased I finally made time to read this – another superlative effort Glennis!

    I’m perpetually amazed at how little is written on the Renaissance parallels in modern concept art and game design. I have a sense the link is much more strongly acknowledged in architetcural and engineering circles and users of CAD… but for Renaissance art historians to twig to this – how long will we have to wait?!

    Keep up the *groundbreaking* work. Make sure you keep Donald Kuspit’s “Matrix of Sensations” in mind too – one of the few writers who has explored similar ground

    Kind Regards

  2. Thanks for the comment – it’s great to have the link to Donald Kuspit’s article to hand too!

  3. Francis DeStefano Reply 29. Feb, 2012 at 11:00 PM


    Sorry for the late comment but I’ve just found your site. I think that Leonard was following tradition in his Madonna and Child with St. Anne. In the fifteenth century artists would try to depict the Immaculate Conception of Mary by showing her inside the womb of her mother. This crude concept was eventually discarded but Leonardo gets them as close together as possible. I discussed this concept in my interpretation of Giorgione’s Tempest.

    Speaking of storms I recently posted on the Tempest and other storms at Giorgione et al.


  4. Thanks for this insight Frank. The immaculate conception interpretation of the Madonna and Child with St Anne makes a lot of sense and creates another layer of meaning. I love your blog also for your richly layered interpretations.


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