The purpose of this lesson is to introduce you to the pleasure of looking at master drawings. Through the presentation of large-scale details, videos and close-up images simulate the experience of looking at a drawing with a magnifying glass, and we can see techniques and materials that reveal the artist’s creativity.
Au cirque: Entrèe en piste, 1899, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Black and colored pencils on paper; 12 3/16 inches high x 7 7/8 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.19). Use our zoom feature to take a closer look.
What I love about looking at a master drawing is the sense of being close to the artist, of seeing inspiration and creativity firsthand. As we engage with these works, we can almost hear the pen-scratch across the sheet or feel that we are seeing three-dimensional space being created with chalk on a blank piece of paper. Master drawings provide a glimpse behind the scenes, beyond the final product the artist wanted us to see, enabling us to understand the human struggle involved, false starts and failed ideas included. The centuries of time between us and the artists seem to drop away, and we are there beside them as they work.
A drawing can be broadly defined as a work of art executed by hand in drawing media on paper. However, there is much blurring at the edges of this definition. For example, drawings can be made on vellum (animal skin), as are works that are considered manuscript illuminations, and large highly finished pastels on paper are often considered paintings. Rough oil sketches on canvas or paper are another gray area, some being mounted as drawings and some presented as paintings—a minority were also made as independent works of art. These were often highly finished and highly colored, and deliberately meant to mimic paintings. The uniqueness of drawings and paintings distinguishes them from prints, which are intended to be produced in multiple impressions by a variety of processes, including woodcut, engraving, and etching.
One of the prime considerations when looking at a drawing is that of why it was originally made. Asking this question can help us understand why it takes the form it does, and why the artist might have chosen a particular format or medium—a pen or chalk, for instance. Did the artist intend other people to see it? Was it to be followed by other drawings? For example, artists used drawings to work out the placement of characters within a scene, such as in a compositional study, or to examine a particular aspect of the design, such as lighting of a single figure or a detail of dress or expression.
Taddeo Copying Raphael's Frescoes in the Loggia of the Villa Farnesina, Where He Is Also Represented Asleep, about 1595, Federico Zuccaro. Pen and brown ink, brush with brown wash, over black chalk and touches of red chalk; 16 11/16 inches high x 6 7/8 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 99.GA.6.13). Use our zoom feature to take a closer look.
Often the only evidence of the function of a drawing can be garnered from within the work itself, and sometimes can only be arrived at by a full study of all the (surviving) preparatory drawings. Frequently, the purpose of a drawing cannot be known because the finished work for which it was made has been lost. However, artists also drew for practice, for friends, or for pleasure.
All the above having been said, works of art, especially those as intimate and beguiling as drawings, do not require anything at first instance apart from the patience and time to study them attentively. Seek out exhibitions of drawings whenever you can, but in the meantime, please enjoy a selection of videos featuring such masters as Michelangelo, Gainsborough, Van Gogh, Greuze, Zuccaro, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Cézanne.
Julian Brooks, Curator of Drawings
Content adapted from Master Drawings: Close-Up by Julian Brooks. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010