Drawing is the simplest and perhaps the most meaningful vehicle through which to express visual ideas. Young children begin to draw as early as they are given paper and a drawing implement. And while we as adults may not be able to identify or relate to this scribbling stage, the child is engaging in the oldest of the visual arts.
The earliest drawings can be found on the walls of caves in both Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain. These Upper Paleolithic images portray animals and human figures, some applied with mineral pigments and others incised into the stone. The Egyptians decorated their temples and tombs with scenes of everyday life, drawn in a flat, linear style. The Ancient Greeks adorned pottery with graceful figures and designs. Throughout the Middle Ages, manuscripts were illuminated with elaborate drawings and letters. Medieval artists often made preparatory sketches on slabs of wood or slate before moving on to the wall or page. It was not until the 14th century that paper became generally available in Europe, but from that time to the present, drawing has been the foundation for all of the visual arts.
Modern drawing began in the 15th-century Renaissance and moved rather quickly into a sort of “golden age”. One need only look to the beautiful and realistic drawings of Leonardo to see the medium in full flowering.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) learned drawing and goldsmithing from his father. He apprenticed to Michael Wolgemut at the age of 15, when he draw his self portrait in silverpoint. Silverpoint is a technique by which the image is drawn by a sharp silver wire onto prepared paper. Dürer studied in Italy two different times during his career, each time returning to the North with more refined drawing skills. His preparatory sketch, Bettende Hände, was used for the apostles’ hands in the Heller Altarpiece.
The works of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) represent the epitome of pencil drawing. His portrait of Mme. Guillaume Guillon Lethiere is one of the earliest done in pencil. More on that later! But note that there are over 450 extant drawings by Ingres, done with a sharp graphite on smooth white paper.
The great debate on this drawing issue began in 17th-century France, of course instigated by the then director of the French Royal Academy, Charles LeBrun. The Academy extolled drawing as superior to color in a successful work of art. Sides were quickly taken in a long and heated controversy that was not resolved until the mid-18th century. The Academy followers, labeled Poussinistes, sided with drawing. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) had valued line over color. He believed that clarity of expression could only be achieved through design. More on that later! Such a theory played up the Platonic concept that the mind could envision objects and reconstruct them in visual form only by selecting and accurately reproducing elements in nature. The successful painting had to have an intellectual appeal, only achieved by a clarity and order that harkened back to Ancient Greek ideals. All this high minded philosophy was right up the Academy’s alley!
On the opposing side were the Rubenistes, taking inspiration from Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) who placed all his bets on color and sensuality in art. Rubens did “history” paintings. His drawings are strong, but lack detail. The Rubenistes held that drawing had limited (only intellectual) appeal, while color had mass appeal. Of the working artists in that day, we can observe the work of Ingres as Poussiniste and that of Gèricault as Rubeniste.
All this controversy settled down in 1717 when Jean-Antoine Watteau’s The Embarkation for Cythera was accepted into the Salon by the Academy. Although it took him almost 5 years to complete his “reception” piece (he had been accepted into the Academy in 1712), it created a new genre known as fêtes galantes painting. The Rubenistes triumphed with the acceptance of this painting. Although Watteau’s work resulted in a new category of painting being accepted by the Academy, he would never be classified as a “history” painter, the highest category of painter so labeled by the Academy.
But this was no new controversy. 15th-century Italy had beat them to it! The painters of the Quattrocento Florentine style held that design (drawing/design) was essential to beginning any artistic endeavor. Drawing then was the primary means for creating art to approximate nature. These painters worked on paper to perfect their design before committing it to canvas. The Venetians came in on the side of colorito (color). Color was fundamental to producing a lifelike image. So, the Florentines prepared detailed cartoons before beginning a work, while the Venetians went straight to the surface, defining form through layer upon layer of brushstroke rather than carefully prepared lines. Vasari solved the problem when he emphatically stated, “design is the father and foundation of all the visual arts…the animating principle of all creative processes.” I suppose one could sum up all this bickering by saying that drawing is important if one wants to be an artist!
And what about that pencil drawing by Ingres? Although Borrowdale (Cumbria, England) graphite was produced as early as the Elizabethan era, it was not until 1795 that Nicolas-Jacques Conté perfected the pencil. His process mixed graphite with a clay binder that was then fired into a narrow rod. the principle: vary the mixture and vary the hardness. Pencils are made essentially the same way today, except that the rods are contained in a nice wooden cylinder to keep fingers clean and surfaces smudge free. Most artists’ pencils use the European scale of degrees of H (hardness) and B (blackness.) The degree F stands between HB and H. Our standard #2 pencil is HB on the European scale. Pencils made in different countries are often different colors. A standard American pencil is usually contained in a yellow wooden cylinder, associated with the high quality of the Koh-I-Nor brand, and our Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. German pencils, such as Staedtler and Faber-Castell are usually green or black, based on the trademark colors of Faber-Castell. Some are round, some are hexagonal, some even triangular. Some even bend without waving it around in your hand! Next time you pick up a pencil, remember design, and make a little design on your memo!
Now that we have talked about the benefits of drawing versus color, it is time for you to consider taking a drawing course so that you might better assess the merits of each. I will be teaching drawing classes this fall. These studio classes are both informal and informative as students explore the various techniques of drawing and bring their own images into reality. Please consider availing yourself of the opportunities that LSUA has to offer in the visual arts. All are welcome, both traditional students and members of the community. And please remember that high school students are now eligible to take courses at LSUA in the dual-enrollment program. For more information on this, please contact your Guidance Counselor.