Beginner: Drawing Masters

As one studies drawing, it can be useful to learn from masters that came before in order to gain inspiration and find ways of approaching challenges that arise. For those discovering drawing, there are several master draftsmen one can learn from.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Portrait of Madame d'Haussonville
by Jean-Auguste-
Dominique Ingres, ca. 1842, graphite, 9 3/16 x 7¾.
Collection The Fogg Art Museum
at Harvard University,
Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“I believe drawing is the foundation of all art,” says artist Mary Reilly. She is not alone in this sentiment. Many artists believe that drawing skills are crucial to working in any medium, even if drawing is not one’s primary interest. From early on there were artists who valued drawings as completed works in their own right. These artists further elevated the medium and demonstrated the breadth of opportunities available to those who wished to explore drawing further.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) was a born draftsman. From an early age, his father nurtured his skills in drawing, and at 17 Ingres went to Paris to study under Jacques-Louis David, who was Napoleon’s official “art czar” during the French Revolution. Although deeply influenced by Renaissance painter Raphael, and a gifted painter himself, it is Ingres' drawings and portraits for which he is best known.

Ingres moved to Italy in 1808 after winning the Grand Prix de Rome, France’s top art scholarship. There, he honed his craft, inspired by the work of Old Masters. To support himself and his wife, he accepted painting commissions from the state and completed hundreds of graphite portraits for tourists, traveling dignitaries, and wealthy émigrés. These small portraits are “great works of art, catching in a miracle of talent, features, poses, costumes, atmosphere, and character,” wrote art historian Stephen Longstreet. “The people are real. They breathe and exist solidly on earth.”

Sheet Studies of Women for The Turkish Bath
by Jean-Auguste-
Dominique Ingres, ca. 1830,
pen, brown ink, and graphite
on two joined sheets, 6¾ x 4¾.
Collection the Louvre, Paris, France.

The ability to capture reality was due to his technical skill and familiarity with anatomy. With such innate knowledge of the human form, the artist could properly render drapery in a way that followed the shape of the body in every crease and fold. The artist’s ability to capture a likeness came from his devotion to exactitude, which he developed through drawing. Ingres was a compulsive drawer, urging students to draw with their eyes when they could not do so with a pencil. For his painted portraits and murals, he sometimes made hundreds of preparatory drawings. He seemed to find this step of the process more satisfying than the actual painting of the murals, which he sometimes abandoned. “The stages were: studying from life, wrenching truth from experience, squaring, enlarging, transporting onto canvas, going back, if necessary to the model for this or that detail,” wrote Avigdor Arikha in J.A.D. Ingres: Fifty Life Drawings From the Musée Ingres at Montauban, the catalogue for an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “Asking the Count de Pastoret for his gloves or going back to Madame Moitessier’s left arm, drawing it life-size so as to transpose it directly onto canvas, going back to it again and again. This is when Ingres got bogged down. It was an over-elaborate—almost obsessive—proceeding, the aim of which was to get nearer to the truth of the matter.”

Artists of all levels can learn from Ingres’ attention to detail. His work ethic was admirable, and he created drawings that were both technically pleasing and emotionally resonant. “Of all the masters I’ve studied, I have most enjoyed the work of Ingres,” says Reilly. “Ingres’ preferred materials were the sharply pointed graphite pencil and smooth white paper. He believed color to be no more than an accessory to drawing. To him, drawing was not just the line. It was the expression, the inner form, the composition, and the modeling.” It is this view that has influenced 20th-century modern art and generations of artists from Degas to Dinnerstein.

Seated Nude Woman
by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, 22 x 15.
Collection the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York,
New York.

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon

Like Ingres, Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758–1823) was acclaimed as a painter, but drawing was the foundation for his work. Known in his day for his allegorical and mythological paintings, it is now his figure drawings that inspire and stun viewers. As an art student at the Dijon Academy in the early 1780s, Prud’hon devoted himself to the rigorous training in drawing that was deemed necessary for all those who hoped for a successful career as an artist. Académies—figure studies drawn from the live model—were the way in which students honed their skills, completing hundreds of these drawings by the time they were ready to pursue their professions. The process took years and weeded out a number of aspirants, either due to lack of dedication or talent. While this rigorous and lengthy training may seem cumbersome to today’s students, these figure drawings were crucial to artists, many of whom created these studies throughout their career for ideas and practice.

Académie of a Seated Man
by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon,
black and white chalk on blue paper, 14 9/17 x 10?.
Collection Museé Baron Martin,
Gray, France.

Prud’hon was one such artist, and more than his contemporaries, he clung to the académies throughout his career. What is even more noteworthy, perhaps, is that Prud’hon came to favor these figure drawings over completed paintings, even as his career advanced. By 1788, the artist had developed a signature style of figures drawn in colored chalk on tinted paper. The drawings are often built up in several layers, including hatching and broad passages of toning and stumping. By mixing lines, tones, and various techniques, Prud’hon presented artists with the full range of expressive possibilities of chalk and paper. “Prud’hon’s studies convey a strong sense of emotion,” says Reilly. “His marks seem loose and free, but they are perfectly placed.” Agrees artist Kenneth Procter, “Prud’hon completed some drawings where the core of the shadow runs like a stripe down the whole length of a pose, exposing every nuance of muscle—it is absolutely stunning.” With his knowledge of the human body so deeply ingrained, he could focus on his subject and imbue him or her with life, marking quickly and responding immediately to his own thoughts without worry about anatomy or verisimilitude.

At an early age, Prud’hon added “Paul” to his name, in honor of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), who was also a master draftsman. Prud’hon shared the artist's love of the human figure and in-depth knowledge of anatomy, but that is where their similarities end. Rubens was a proponent of the Baroque style, known for its emphasis on color, lavish detail, and dynamic movement. Prud’hon, on the other hand, stripped away dramatic motion and focused on the way light moved across forms. However, what Prud’hon did learn from his predecessor is the importance of constantly creating new work, regardless of style. Rubens was one of the most prolific and diverse artists of his time, with an output that included altarpieces, history paintings, portraits, and landscapes, as well as book illustrations and architectural designs.

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The Assumption of the Virgin
by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1612,
brown ink and brown wash,
white body color, and black chalk on brown
paper, 11? x 9?. Collection Albertina
Museum Vienna, Austria.
Seated Young Woman With Raised Arms
by Peter Paul Rubens, 1631–1632,
black and red chalk with white
heightening, 16 x 19 11/16.
Collection Staatliche Museen zu
Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin, Germany.

Peter Paul Rubens

In addition, the artist produced hundreds of drawings, which played a variety of supporting roles in his work from the very beginning of his career. As a young artist, he spent much of his time copying masterworks; a move to Italy in 1600 shifted his subject matter to the work of the Renaissance masters. The purpose of drawing works by Titian, Michelangelo, and Raphael was not simply to learn. As artist-instructor John A. Parks notes, “It was actually an attempt to ransack the available iconography and compositions so that he could amass a personal library of imagery for later use. What the artist most valued in these drawings was not their personal calligraphy or quality of rendering, but simply their design information.”

Rubens used this image library to serve as inspiration for the large altarpieces he was commissioned to create. He would begin these large works with a preliminary drawing in black or brown chalk, then he would create an oil sketch. After this, the artist returned to drawing, making larger pieces from live models using black chalk. This larger drawing allowed him to include more detail and anatomical accuracy, and infuse his subject with a vivacity that Baroque artists were proud of.

Although Rubens probably thought little of his drawings, artists today can glean much from his preparatory works. His drawings served to enrich his paintings and helped him in every stage of the process. When he finally put oil to canvas, he had a clear vision and was certain of how to execute it. Through drawing, Rubens expanded his visual vocabulary, enabling him to create hundreds of brilliant works.

Woman With Dead Child
by Käthe Kollwitz, 1903, etching.
Collection the National Gallery of
Art, Washington, DC.

Käthe Kollwitz

German painter, printmaker, and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945), may be better known for her subject matter than her skill. Her etchings, lithographs, and drawings were primarily of the working class people she saw around her, and she presented viewers with moving accounts of human suffering and struggle. Her deep emotional connection to her subjects enabled her to create art that still resonates with audiences today, and can inspire artists who want to tackle personal and/or political subject matter. “I was taken by Kollwitz’s early work and the depth of form she got from her copious linework,” says artist and instructor Dan Gheno. “I also appreciated the emotional strength in her work. She taught me that I could go much further than the surface form if I looked inside myself.”

by Käthe Kollwitz, 1924, lithograph.

Kollwitz often worked in cycles, tackling the topic of historical uprisings and changes. The first of these series was The Weavers, which consisted of three lithographs and three etchings based on German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann’s dramatization of the failed revolt of 1842. Kollwitz’s works weren’t a literal illustration of the historical facts or Hauptmann’s adaptation; instead, she focused on the misery, hope, and fortitude of the workers. When these pieces were exhibited to the public in 1898, the artist garnered wide acclaim, and it is still one of her most famous projects. This was later followed by her series Peasants’ War (1902-1908), based on the German peasants’ rebellion of 1522-1525. By the time of this series, the artist was considered one of the most important German graphic artists of her time.

In addition to varying her subject matter, Kollwitz explored a range of techniques in printmaking with these series, including photo-etching, intaglio, and color lithographic printing. At this time, she simplified her work, leaving behind her highly detailed realist approach in favor of a narrative of emotion. It is this commitment to humanist themes and an emotional connection that helps distinguish Kollwitz's work.

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky
by Pablo Picasso, 1920,
graphite, Collection Museé Picasso,
Paris, France.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) is an artist of international renown, one who lived in Europe during turbulent times and used his art to interpret the rapid, and, at times violent, changes that took place around him. While the artist completed hundreds of paintings for which he is well known, his drawings are at the core of his work. “The heart of Picasso’s evolution as an artist and icon lies in his draftsmanship—that’s where his experimentation and visual breakthroughs were generated,” says artist and teacher Lisa Dinhofer. An artist with profound knowledge of the fundamentals and extensive academic training, Picasso was able to deconstruct a subject, rendering it in the fewest lines necessary, and arrive at its essence. “It takes the detailed knowledge of a master draftsman to portray an object in its simplest form,” says Dinhofer. “Not with a softened Conté mark, not with a cross-hatched buildup for volume, not in layered shades of graphite to model an area, but a direct line conveying all form and space.”

Nusch Eluard
by Pablo Picasso, 1938,
charcoal and graphite on canvas.

Picasso’s linework indicated the inner and outer forms of his subject, and he could fill the picture plane by removing volumetric details. This can be seen in portraits such as Max Jacob, Portrait of Erik Satie, and Helena Rubenstein. Looking at his experimentation with line and shapes, artists can understand how Picasso forced viewers to see objects in new ways, and still pushes our limits today. His masterpiece Guernica, created in 1937, embodies the artist’s changing theories and experimentation with line. As Dinhofer notes, “The composition is based solely on the juxtaposition of space and line. The interior and landscape depicted are flattened, pushing every figure to the foreground. The result is an overpowering assault … accomplished with a bold, unbroken line, cut-out shapes, and a compressed picture plane.”

Artists of all levels can look at the work of Picasso and learn something new at various points in their artistic exploration, just as the artist himself changed over time. “Picasso is often described as fundamentally a draftsman,” says Procter. “His drawings are virtuosic, amazingly varied in technique, and fabulously, slyly inventive.” Picasso deconstructed his subject matter to the bare essence of line, showing viewers and artists that drawing truly is the foundation of art.

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.

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