Striking Out on His Own
After five years with the Company of Painters, Leonardo broke free of the guild and opened his own art studio in Florence. While he still kept close ties to Verrocchio, he began establishing his own identity, splitting from Verrocchio on several major issues. For example, while Verrocchio was a master of tempera, Leonardo preferred working with oil paint. Leonardo thought that oil paints had a more natural glow, and they also increased his ability to mix colors.
His apprenticeship with Andrea Verrocchio gave Leonardo both the confidence and the reputation to join the Company of Painters; the experience he gained with the guild likely spurred him to branch out even further by going to work for himself. In modern-day terms, Leonardo's striking out would be equivalent to working for a large corporation, and then taking out loans to begin a start-up company. Leonardo's company was, of course, just himself!
Leonardo's work during this period includes sketches he made around 1478 of an angel, which could be based on his angel from Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ, done several years earlier. Many paintings of the Virgin Mary done during this period have been attributed to Leonardo as well. Of particular interest is a vibrant Madonna and Child from 1478 that shows incredible attention to detail and human facial expression.
The Madonna with the Carnation, also called the Benois Madonna (1478–1480), is another of Leonardo's works done during this early independent period. This oil painting again demonstrated extremely realistic human features with a rich depth of expression, apparent especially in the Madonna's facial and hand gestures. And like many of Leonardo's other paintings and artistic endeavors, this work also appears to be partially incomplete. Further, in this painting, lighting appears to be coming from both behind and in front of the window, indicating that Leonardo was experimenting withthe advanced painting techniques he would refine in later years. The innovations in Leonardo's early works are often copied throughout his career—when he found something that worked, he refined it and then used it over and over again.
From Independence to Patronage
Leonardo's period of self-employment was short-lived, however—at least at this point in his career. Devoted as he may have been to his art, Leonardo still had to eat and pay the bills. He didn't yet have a full-time patron, and no one would pay him to just sit around and draw for himself.
Then there was also the issue of handing projects in on time—something that plagued Leonardo throughout his career. Although he had a good reputation from the start, he was also known for starting more projects than he finished, and most patrons preferred a completed work to an idea or sketch—especially when they were paying for it.
As it turns out, the artist-in-residence option fit Leonardo better than individual commissions. When just one patron employed him, Leonardo had much more leeway in his work. Leonardo went on to work for many important people over the course of his life, and his art developed and grew with each change in patronage.