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DRAWING AND ITS PURPOSES

(GRAB A PENCIL)


 

 

[Text from Mary Acton, "Learning to Look at Paintings"]

"Drawings can seem more difficult to approach than paintings. This is partly because often they have no colour and because they can seem fragmentary and unfinished. They require keener observation and greater patience on the part of the spectator. Even more than with paintings, the art of looking at drawings lies in knowing what to look for; factors such as: the flexibility in the use of the drawing instrument and the variety and skill with which the different strokes are made. Sometimes, especially if drawings arc very, old, the paper may be discoloured and what is called 'foxed' with marks caused by damp and/or fungal growth. This can make them appear less attractive at first. The fact that they are incomplete need not necessarily be a disadvantage, though, because they are by their very nature much more immediate than paintings and so can give us greater insight into the process of making a work of art.

"Most artists would agree that drawing is of supreme importance for all sorts of reasons. It is a craft which essentially has to do with the training of the coordination of hand and eye through constant practice. It then enables the artist to translate whatever he sees onto the paper, often more quickly and spontaneously than in a painting. Drawing is intimately connected with all kinds of looking and visualisation. We have already explored some aspects of drawing in association with the use of tone. In Chapter 3 we saw how Seurat used tonal drawing techniques to help him with colour and the development of pointillism. Later on, in Chapter 4, we looked at how Rembrandt manipulated tone for emotional expression equally powerfully in his drawings, paintings and prints. However, the purposes of drawing are many and various and cover much more than this. They can, of course, be preparations for paintings or just studies which an artist has made from observation of something which interested him or her, like jottings on a notepad. This can include trying out possible subjects or arrangements. The use of drawing for more imaginative purposes, that is, to generate ideas and help invention, is regarded as one of its key functions. Making drawn copies from the work of other artists is also useful, because it can help to solve technical and formal problems to do with composition, for example. In the past, copying from engravings of pictures was very important in this context, as we shall see in the next chapter. Sometimes, drawings can be much more like a finished work of art than any of these types, particularly if they are done for a patron as what is called a 'presentation drawing.

"There are also a large number of techniques connected with drawing, for example, those done in charcoal or red or black chalk. White chalk can be used on coloured paper or for highlights on a charcoal or red or black chalk drawing. Graphite, like the lead in pencils, was used from the sixteenth century. Pencils with graphite set in wood came from Cumberland in the late seventeenth century. Variations in the hardness and softness of pencils were developed in France by Nicolas Jaques Come, who mixed clay with graphite in different proportions. He patented the pencil as we know it from 1795. All these methods replaced metalpoint and silverpoint, which were less flexible and could only be used on specially prepared paper. There are other techniques, where pen and ink and the brush are used, which can extend into watercolour put on as a wash. This can then become virtually a painting when colour is added. The same kind of range applies to pastels, which are pigments bound with gum. They can broaden drawings from something done just in black and white to include the use of a wide variety of opaque colours, when they too become more like paintings.

"The idea of completeness or of something that is finished is a concept that we are not nowadays so concerned with because we no longer have such set attitudes. It comes from the belief in drawing as something which is preparatory to a painting; a sketch in other words, which records the artist's development of an idea. In the academic tradition, the theory of what was finished or unfinished became very rigid and depended in painting on working with fine brushes to create a smooth uninterrupted surface (see Poussin or Ingres for examples of this). In the case of drawing, it meant grading the tones extremely carefully to convey the sculptural qualities of form, particularly in relationship to life drawing. The observation and interpretation of the human body requires the most complex coordination of hand and eye and call act as a very effective discipline. You can see this clearly in the draughtsmanship of an artist like Toulouse-Lautrec, who had a very strong natural talent and innate caricatural style. His mature work benefited greatly from the control provided by his academic training, giving it a more concrete, solid and convincing quality. Since the end of the nineteenth century, which was the period when Lautrec was working, our thoughts about what constitutes a complete work of art have become much more liberal. Certainly, anything by the hand of a great artist is regarded as worth looking at. An extreme version of this is contained in the stories told about Picasso making drawings on his napkin in cafés and people picking them up as treasured examples of the master's skill.

"Drawing did not always play such a multiplicity of roles in such a variety of techniques. Before the late fifteenth century it seems to have been used as a kind of total preparation for a painting or the detailed study of a particular subject, like Pisanello's drawings of birds and animals, for example. Of course, many of the drawings from earlier periods are lost, so we do not have such a complete record as we do from more recent times. But what seems fairly certain is that, until the late fifteenth century, drawing was not used for experimentation in the way that we now understand it. The growth of this attitude seems to have coincided with the use of the more flexible black and red chalk, although it is thought that these techniques were known about much earlier. Most scholars would agree that Leonardo da Vinci was the first to extend the possibilities of drawing and that this was connected with his view of the painter's imaginative powers..."


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