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Old Master Drawings

Drawing is not the form; it is the way of seeing the form.

A male nude from behind, c.1630 Gian Lorenzo Bernini

In this blog I talk about painting but the importance of drawing cannot be understated of course, and I believe we can learn just as much from studying their techniques of line and strokes as we can from brushstrokes...more in most cases as the drawing is more expressive and intimate. It reveals the personality and character of the artist.

The above drawing apparently comes from the period of Bernini's teaching at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, one of four from the exact same model. This drawing is fairly big for a study, at 55.6 x 42cm (21 x 16 inches). Consider Michelangelo's study for Libyan Sibyl, is only 28.9 x 21.4 cm (11 3/8 x 8 7/16 inches), a small study for a fresco which would be painted several times larger than life size. I can only guess that Bernini was teaching a big class and that maybe his work was on display for students to study, or it may have been something from life-drawing class. Sculptors were the most formidable draftsmen (and still are) of their time, and here Bernini shows he is no slouch at all. The highlights around the spine of the scapulae appear to be erased, but they are actually drawn in with white chalk. It is interesting here how the tight hatching on the shadow areas of the arm and spine seem chisel-like, totally different from the usual hatching or cross-hatching of most artists at that time. The outlines of the shoulder blades and shoulders are confident and relaxed, with no hesitation or pentimenti at all. I like how the foliage and bark surrounding the figure were blocked in with the side of the red chalk, quick and self-assured, always thinking of value and tones. This particular drawing would have taken some time to render at that size, but I presume it could have been one sitting. I can only imagine what kind of an instructor Bernini must have been. He would have emphasized looking very carefully at the figure, not rushing...think before you put down a line or stroke.

Study for the Madonna Alba, Raphael

Above we see a very large study by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) for his painting of the same name. This drawing measures a whopping 422 x 272 cm (166 x 107 inches), if Wikipedia is to be believed, which would make it even larger than the final painting! Raphael's cross-hatching is very quick and poised, more a quick sketch than a study, yet he reveals a grace to this model's pose that is more elegant than religious, almost like ballet or dance. Whomever the model was, Raphael scribbled these lines in very quick, not even finishing the right arm and yet the face...with the suggestion of facial features and expression...the eyes peering off to the far purely Classical and feminine. Crosshatching is something that is not easy to pull off on a woman, especially on her legs, and here he uses just the right amount of pressure, starting lightly first along the form of the legs, then heavier with the crosshatching. This gives a glow to the edges of the shadows. Notice how the face has more consistent hatching, strengthened only at the neck muscles and shadow on her shoulder.

Study of a woman's head, c. 1490 Leonardo Da Vinci

This famous small study (7.09 x 6.61 inches) was done in silverpoint, an extremely unforgiving medium that can make the most steady hand seem clumsy and awkward but of course, Leonardo was the supreme master of silverpoint. Leonardo used mostly diagonal hatching on all his drawings, and here he makes it seem effortless, and yet the expression on her face is so tender and real...a young woman lost in thought or daydreaming...even with the staining on the cheek this drawing makes you forget you are looking at a drawing. His technique shows the scientist absolutely, the hatching marks long and flawless, as if made with a ruler. I can imagine this model sitting next to a window as Da Vinci drew this, and if Raphael was quick with the former example, here Leonardo definitely took his time, only reinforcing the profile of her face and neck. Emotion itself seems to be a subject of his relentless scientific mind. Someone like Da Vinci, with his razor-sharp eye, always astounds me how he was able to merge that observation with pure emotion. Most artists are either one or the other, not both. I can see how his genius would have made it difficult to teach students...he was simply at another level, and we haven't caught up yet.


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More Old Master Drawings

There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body.
Robert Henri

Charles Louis Müller, A Standing Female Nude Leaning Against an Arch, ca.1864

Once again I decided to talk about some Old Master drawings and delve into the thinking behind how these drawings may have been created and the knowledge of the artist. In the above drawing by Müller, done in sanguine with white chalk highlights, the figure is drawn from a low view-point, with her body twisting toward her left side while resting on one knee. Note how Müller alternates the bent right leg with the bent left arm to create dynamic contrast. The right arm is also foreshortened and partially in shadow. Expressing power and femininity, this is a study that is Renaissance in spirit, even Mannerist, revealing the female nude as sculptural yet always graceful.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Seated male nude viewed from the back, 1755

One of several Academic nude studies by Mengs, this …


Nymphs and Satyr, 1873

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Apollo and two Muses, 1719

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