The Italians Got It Right

The composition of the Laocoön was thought to be the height of disegno during the Renaissance. It is complexly arranged, full of emotional power, and sculpted with incredible skill.
The composition of the Laocoön was thought to be the height
of disegno during the Renaissance. It is complexly arranged,
full of emotional power, and sculpted with incredible skill.

For Renaissance Italians, great art was primarily about disegno, or drawing—but not just the process of drafting in itself. Disegno encompassed the intellectual aspect of an artwork in conjunction with technique. This shift in focus raised the status of the visual arts, which had been until that time considered a trade, to that of literature and music. Disegno became the standard that all great works of art, whether sculpture, painting, or architecture, had in common.

The way to achieve disegno was, however, through drawing, because it provided the foundation on which an artist built a finished work. Becoming an artist known for strong disegno (Michelangelo would have been the team captain) meant starting by drawing from life, then going on to create drawings of Greek and Roman sculptures with an eye toward mastering complex multifigure compositions such as that of the Laocoön.

But even after this exhaustive teaching, an artist doesn’t become a master of disegno. Drawing well wasn’t the end goal; it was the vehicle that carried the artist toward the goal. It allowed for experimentation, invention, and sharpening one’s mind. In that way, a great draftsman was deemed omnipotent, supreme because of his or her abilities to conceive, to create, and—with the skills they attained through their drawing studies and practice—to execute their vision. Art is a feat of the imagination, not observation, and drawing allows for intellectual innovation. The execution of such innovation is how great and lasting art is made.

Lucian Freud is a modern master, and one who uses his ample drawing skills to create works that intend to make viewers uncomfortable and slightly disturbed. The disegno of Girl with Roses lies in the variety of texture and pattern presented and how the tight composition has a tenseness to it that seems to push out to every corner of the canvas.
Lucian Freud is a modern master, and one who used his ample drawing skills to create works that intend to make viewers uncomfortable and slightly disturbed. The disegno of Girl with Roses lies in the variety of texture and pattern presented and how the tight composition has a tenseness to it that seems to push out to every corner of the canvas.

Although centuries have lessened the godlike status of draftsmen, disegno and all it encompasses is still the bedrock of an artist’s practice. In Design & Composition with Ian Roberts, you can see how great artists conceive compelling works, what techniques and skills they use to bring their ideas to fruition, and how to master those skills for yourself. With this resource you can stand among the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli, learning just like they did all those centuries ago.

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

7 thoughts on “The Italians Got It Right

  1. I could think of a hundred contemporary artists who exemplify your ideal of ‘master of disegno’. But, Lucien Freud is not one of them. In fact, he would be an example of how he doesn’t have it. Just because a painting has a ‘variety of texture and pattern’ does not make it a master of anything. He simply can not draw. Maybe you should have chosen an artist who exemplifies good drawing AND disegno like Graydon Parrish.

  2. That Freud makes me uncomfortable but not for the reasons cited. The forehead is too short, the eyes too big and too far apart. That artist does not appear to be a master of disegno to me.

  3. Dear Courtney:
    Laocoonte is a Greek sculture….! It is not Italian….!

    ‘…Grupo escultórico El Laocoonte y sus hijos es una de las obras más representativas del período helenístico. Fue realizada por Agesandro, Atenodoro y Polidoro de Rodas hacia 50 d. C. (Museo Pío-Clementino, Vaticano…’

  4. The deliberate manipulation of proportion helps set the underlying psychological disturbance the artist is trying to depict in this figure and I think it works very well.
    Since the invention of photography, artists of the 20th century have edited their disegno skills towards meaning rather than strict realistic demonstrations.
    I find a lot of realist figure drawings to be boring, uninteresting studies.

  5. 31. The disegno meant as the drawing step before creating the piece of art is still used nowadays. For example this technique is largely used by Italian master glasses when they create new sculptures and give them dynamic shapes.

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