Masters: 10 Great Drawers, (and What They Teach Us)

107dega_453x600_1We counted the number of times historical figures were referenced or reproduced in the first 10 issues of Drawing and showcased the the most mentioned here, with illuminating comments from two experts.

by Bob Bahr

It’s possible the greatest drawer the world has produced was a female apprentice to another artist in rococo France, or a Renaissance draftsman rendered invisible by the glare of an acknowledged master from a more powerful nearby city-state—or a self-effacing art instructor currently working in Minnesota. Choosing the top 10 drawers of all time is a parlor game of dubious value. Instead, we decided to tally the number of times historical figures were referenced or reproduced in the first 10 issues of Drawing and showcase them with illuminating comments from a thoughtful working artist and a representative from one of the most respected art institutions in the country.

Each of the 10 persons featured here offers drawing work of exquisite beauty, but more important to our purposes, each offers insights and lessons a draftsman can use. Our writers and featured artists have said so. We explore why the work of these individuals is inspiring.

Leonardo da Vinci

Head of a Young Woman
by Leonardo da Vinci, metalpoint,
pen and brown ink, with brush and
brown wash highlighted with white
gouache, 11 x 71/2. Collection Uffizi
Gallery, Florence, Italy.The black-chalk figure on the bottom
left was drawn by another artist.
“He’s teasing you with a little part of
the eye,” comments Rubenstein. “He
could have given you a full profile,
but he didn’t. Leonardo isolated
some parts and hit them and let the
other parts go. This isn’t a portrait
of a particular person; it’s an
idealized form. As Kenneth Clark
said, classically speaking, the nude
does not refer to a specific person.
It’s not a portrait, it’s a design.”

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was art’s first undeniable superstar, and his genius is indisputable. But Ephraim Rubenstein, an artist who teaches at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, mixes his admiration for Leonardo with the point that even this Renaissance great did not emerge from a vacuum. “Leonardo got so much from Andrea del Verrocchio, who was a tremendous teacher,” says Rubenstein. “Everyone comes out of a tradition; nobody comes from nowhere. Leonardo learned the beginnings of sfumato from him, among many other things.”

Born the illegitimate son of a lawyer in the Tuscan town of Vinci, Leonardo was a scientist, an inventor, a pioneer in the study of anatomy, and the painter of the masterpieces The Last Supper and Mona Lisa—the prototypical Renaissance man. Rubenstein refers to his lines as “mellifluous, delicate, and graceful. He doesn’t do anything that doesn’t have the most beautiful curves.” But his sketchbooks are what make Leonardo an innovator. “He was one of the first guys who talked about taking a notebook out into the streets,” says Rubenstein. “Leonardo said you must have direct contact with life and observe men’s actions.”


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Leonardo da Vinci Master Draftsman, by Carmen C. Bambach (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York)

Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings, by Frank Zollner and Johannes Nathan (Taschen, Cologne, Germany)


Head of a Young Man (?)
by Michelangelo, ca. 1516, red
chalk, 8 x 61/2. Collection
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford,
England.“This drawing suggests the influence
of Leonardo,” says Rubenstein. “It’s
more tonal and delicate than many
of his other drawings.”

His Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of the most celebrated feats in art history, but those interested in drawings focus on the more than 90 chalk-and-ink works Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475–1564) made in preparation for this and other commissions. More than one artist have drawn the parallel between this Italian master’s work and the fantastical, muscle-bound forms in comic books. But if any aspiring draftsman over the last 50 years has approached the rippling human anatomy in comics with admiration, he has come to Michelangelo’s work with awe. “With his mastery of painting, sculpture, and the architectural, no artist—with the possible exception of Leonardo—was more technically gifted,” says Rhoda Eitel-Porter, the head of the department of drawings at the Morgan Library, in New York City.

“His figures are always exerting themselves,” observes Rubenstein. “They are striving for something but are bound. All the muscles are tensed simultaneously, which is anatomically impossible, but deeply poetic. Michelangelo made a landscape of the human body.” The reason is logical: Michelangelo was a sculptor. The separation between the tactile and the visual is broken down; the artist sees and draws in three dimensions. “Michelangelo understands that a particular muscle is egglike in character, and he goes after that shape with his chalk,” Rubenstein says, pointing out that the marks on his drawings increasingly home in on more finished areas of the form in a manner that parallels the chisel lines on an unfinished sculpture. The artist placed rough hatches in some places, more carefully defining crosshatching in others, and polished tone in the most finished areas.

Michelangelo’s work is marked by two other traits: his almost complete dedication to the male nude, and the omnipresent sensuality in his art. Even female figures in his pieces were modeled after men, and even his drapery was sensual. “He could say everything he wanted to say with the male nude,” observes Rubenstein. “He was not distracted by anything else—not landscapes, not still lifes, not female nudes. With the exception of his architecture, Michelangelo was monolithically focused on the male nude, and even in his buildings, parallels could be made to the body.”


Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master, by Hugo Chapman (Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut)

Lessons From Michelangelo, by Michael Burban (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York)

Albrecht Dürer

Knight, Death, and Devil
by Albrecht Dürer, 1513, engraving,
93/4 x 73/8.“Technically this is a feat that has
never been equaled,” asserts
Rubenstein. “That’s probably not the
most important aspect of this
engraving, but because it’s so
technically perfect, Dürer moves into
another realm from other

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) is arguably the greatest printmaker in history. He published more than 350 engravings and woodcuts and completed at least 35 oil paintings, generating more than a thousand preliminary drawings and watercolors in the process. Dürer created a number of widely known and iconic prints, and the Nuremberg artist is highly respected and influential among drawers. His nuanced depiction of forms—no easy feat with a rigid, unforgiving engraving tool—is the reason so many draftsmen study and marvel at his work.

“His drawing comes out of a printmaker’s sensibility,” comments Rubenstein. “He cannot lay down tone; he has to hatch. And nobody stays on the form with the ruthlessness of Dürer.” He was virtuosic, but perhaps not innovative. “I think he received a lot from the Italians,” says Rubenstein, in reference to the artist’s visit to Venice to see a friend and investigate the art and ideas of Renaissance Italy. But his talent wasn’t just in the execution of his technique. Dürer packed a lot of content in engravings such as Knight, Death, and Devil—including two phantasmagorical figures that fascinate yet don’t dominate the rest of the composition—but the eye easily grasps the main idea when it isn’t feasting on marvelously rendered roots and pebbles.

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“You respond to the intensity and density of the image,” Rubenstein says. “Dürer depicts the bizarreness of natural phenomena in great detail, yet he is able to keep the big composition clear and strong with all this going on. He knows that even within the gnarliness of the trees, he has to back off a little bit so the hourglass can come forward. He controls so much—he’s like a juggler that has 30 balls up in the air.”


The Complete Engravings, Etchings, and Drypoints of Albrecht Dürer, by Albrecht Dürer (Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, New York)

Albrecht Dürer and His Legacy: The Graphic Work of a Renaissance Artist, by Giulia Bartrum (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey)

Peter Paul Rubens

Young Woman Looking Down
(Study for the Head of St. Apollonia)

by Peter Paul Rubens, 1628, black
and red chalk heightened with white,
retouched with pen and brown ink,
165/16 x 111/4. Collection Uffizi
Gallery, Florence, Italy.The red chalk evokes the warmth of
the flesh in the subject’s face, while
the black chalk serves as accents
and to depict the hair. “It’s harder
than you think to marry those two
tones,” comments Rubenstein.
“Compare this to Leonardo’s
woman: his is an angel; Rubens’ is a
real woman. You can touch her.” The
artist turned the piece of chalk or
sharpened it to get a sharp line,
varying the width of the strokes
and allowing precise highlights.

The stereotype has artists living a poor, Bohemian lifestyle, but Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) is evidence that some artists achieve immense success. By most accounts, Rubens was a well-respected, rich, happy artist who also collected antiques, raised a big family, and secured a peace treaty or two while serving as a high-level diplomat. He was a busy man of action, and paper was never doodled upon frivolously—nearly all of his drawings were preliminary studies for grander commissions. One marvels even more at the confident, beautiful lines of his drawings in light of the knowledge that he most assuredly would consider them working documents, unsuitable for exhibition. What makes him special is “his mastery of the chalk technique,” according to Eitel-Porter. “He needed just a few strokes to evoke not only the figure’s pose but also its emotional state.”

Indeed, the Belgian court painter demonstrated incredible facility in his drawings, with a hint of bombast. His hand is sure. “Rubens used naturally robust, confident marks, and flowing gestures,” says Rubenstein, who in particular admires the artist’s drawings made with three colors of chalk. “Red chalk is beautiful, but it has a limitation on its range—you often want to use black chalk and white chalk to increase it further on each end of the value range,” Rubenstein explains. “It’s like the difference between a chord and one note—extending the reach of red chalk.”


Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings, by Anne-Marie S. Logan (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York)

Peter Paul Rubens: A Touch of Brilliance, by Mikhail Piotrovsky, (Prestel Publishing, Munich, Germany)


Woman Carrying a Child Down Stairs
by Rembrandt, ca. 1636, pen and
brown ink with brown wash, 73/8 x
53/16. Collection Morgan Library,
New York, New York.“With simple gestures, movements,
and expressions, Rembrandt
captured the dignity of everyday
life—here, a tender moment
between mother and child,” says
Eitel-Porter, “though his portrayal is
anything but ordinary.”

“He was an heir to Leonardo in that he was always sketching from nature,” Rubenstein says of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669). “His gestures were so true and full of life.”

If Rubens was the painter of power and the royal court, Rembrant was the artist of humanity. Gifted with the same ability with line, the Dutch painter and draftsman had the skill to draw very quickly and to confidently add simple washes that efficiently established dark-light patterns. The unforgiving medium of ink was no hindrance to Rembrandt’s pursuit of the moment’s action; the back of his wife’s robe sweeps convincingly off the stair in Woman Carrying a Child Down Stairs, for instance. Mothers and children were of special interest to the artist perhaps, in part, because he lost three children in their infancy and his wife’s death cut short a happy marriage.

“The humanity of his drawings…you don’t feel it so pervasively in the work of anybody else,” remarks Rubenstein. “He seems to know what the mother feels like, what the child feels like—what’s going on in the scene. And he has a spontaneous, incredible line that could show the structure of something, and yet it has its own calligraphic sense.”


Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher, by Clifford S. Ackley (MFA Publications, Boston, Massachusetts)

The Drawings by Rembrandt and His School, Vol. I, by Jeroen Giltaij (Thames & Hudson, New York, New York)

Drawings by Rembrandt and His School, Vol. II, by Jeroen Giltaij (Thames & Hudson, New York, New York)

Charles Le Brun

Study for Mucius Scaevola
Before Porsenna

by Charles Le Brun, ca. 1642, red
chalk on brown paper, 153/4 x 91/2.
Collection Schlossmuseum, Weimar,

With a foot in both the classical and the Baroque eras, Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) was an artist who found success early and had the political skills to remain a dominant figure in the French court and the Académie until very late in life. Le Brun was a student of Vouet and a friend of Poussin, and his compositions were built on basic, simple masses, as in classicism. And yet his figures could bristle with the energy of Baroque art, as shown in the serpentine form in Study for Mucius Scaevola Before Porsenna. Le Brun did more than anyone to establish a homogenous French style of art for three decades in the 17th century. He accomplished this through both policy and painting—Le Brun founded the French Academy in Rome, and by the 1660s any significant commission was assumed his for the taking.

The two drawings shown here ably illustrate how Le Brun’s style pragmatically changed with the times—with both artistic and material success. “One image shows the simple conception of all the forms, very balanced and posed like a Raphael, and the other shows a figure struggling so hard,” marvels Rubenstein.

The Holy Family
With St. John the Baptist

by Charles Le Brun, ca. 1648–1650,
red chalk with stylus outline, 121/4 x
101/2. Prat Collection, Paris, France.

“Even without the indication of the corpse, which this figure is lifting, we feel how much effort he has to exert to hold up this heavy weight.” Le Brun’s surety with drawing instruments was legendary; one myth asserted that this son of a sculptor began drawing in the cradle.


Charles Le Brun: First Painter to King Louis XIV, by Michel Gareau (Harry N. Abrams, New York, New York)

The Expression of the Passions: The Origin and Influence of Charles Le Brun`s Conference sur l’expression générale et particulière, by Jennifer Montagu, (Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut)

Edgar Degas

Study of a Dancer in Tights
by Edgar Degas, ca. 1900, black
crayon, 235/8 x 18. Collection
National Museum, Belgrade, Serbia.“Notice how Degas put darker lines
and thus more emphasis on the
stabilizing leg, and the underside of
the other leg, which is bearing
weight,” comments Rubenstein.

The transformation for a draftsman from drawing tight, detailed forms to looser, more gestural lines is a common one, but these examples show this evolution in Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834–1917) to be a particularly natural one. Beauty inhabits both works, even if a typical viewer may not associate both pieces with one artist. “He was trying to pin down the figure in his early drawings,” explains Rubenstein, “and in the later drawings, he was setting it loose.”

Degas’ muse was the ballerina, and the motion and movements of dance demanded free, gestural sketches. Rubenstein points out that even in quick sketches such as Study of a Dancer in Tights Degas is showing his genius for composition—the knees nearly touch the edges of the paper, and the negative shapes formed by the dancer’s limbs create a powerful design. The beauty of the spontaneous composition betrays the years of experience behind this study.


Degas and the Dance, by Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall (Harry N. Abrams, New York, New York)

Edgar Degas: Life and Work, by Denys Sutton (Rizzoli International Publications, New York, New York)

Vincent van Gogh

Aside from being the prototypical starving artist, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a midwife for the birth of abstract art, as evidenced in his Wild Vegetation. As a painter, he is renowned for his vibrant and bold color, but the risks he took with composition are perhaps equally responsible for his reputation. For drawers, Van Gogh is also important for his mark-making.

108a_vgwild_600x448 108b_vgbirches_600x434 108c_vgzouave_456x600
Wild Vegetation
by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, reed pen, pen, brush, and ink on wove paper, 181/2 x 245/8. Collection Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.This piece is arguably a precursor of abstract art or automatic drawing.
Pollard Birches
by Vincent van Gogh, 1884, pen-and-ink and graphite heightened with opaque watercolor on wove paper, 151/2 x 213/8. Collection Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
The Zouave
by Vincent van Gogh, 1888, reed pen and ink over graphite on wove paper, 121/2 x 95/8. Collection Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York.Mixing a classical way of describing form in some areas with a type of pointillism, Van Gogh spoke his own language with the marks in this portrait. The traits of the reed pen had an impact on the Dutch artist’s drawing style—this type of pen held very little ink and thus favored short, blunt strokes.

“Van Gogh developed an incredible vocabulary with the reed pen,” says Rubenstein. “He’s making up a language, with all these different kinds of marks: dots, dashes, curls, long lines, and short lines. But because he is in such control, it makes sense. He makes rhythms. Nature doesn’t have these marks.”

Comparing Pollard Birches to Wild Vegetation shows the Dutch artist’s growth from representational to the almost completely abstract. The transition is on view to a lesser extent in the portrait The Zouave, in which the majority of the face is depicted with a kind of pointillism while specific features, such as the nose, are formed with classical lines. “It’s a very personal language he has come up with,” comments Rubenstein. “But the marks themselves become mesmerizing.”


Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings, by Colta Ives (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York)

Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman,, by Sjraar van Heugten (Harry N. Abrams, New York, New York)

Egon Schiele

by Egon Schiele, 1913, gouache and
graphite, 191/4 x 125/8. Private
collection.Compare this image to Le Brun’s
Study for Mucius Scaevola Before
Porsenna. In the Le Brun, the
subject is carrying something. In
Schiele, the load is implied—or
inside. “This is very introspective,”
says Rubenstein. “The coiled-up
tension, the head wrenched around
to look right at you, the elongated
torso. He looks feral.”

Austrian-born Egon Schiele (1890–1918) was a dandy cloaked in Bohemian clothes, a supposed pornographer, a determined narcissist, and one of the most provocative and singular draftsmen of the modern age. “Compared to, say, Rembrandt, there’s not a lot of range,” says Rubenstein. “But you always know if something is a Schiele. How does this happen? That’s worth thinking about.”

“All of his exaggerations are thoughtful,” adds Rubenstein. “His distortions are on the money—the indentation of a hip, the swell of the haunch, a line that is clearly hamstrings. The distortions are based on very accurate anatomical landmarks. That’s what makes them so disturbing. That, and the fact that the skeleton is often very present.”

Schiele was maligned for some of his explicit drawings of underaged girls, but the dismissal of all his erotic art may be a mistake. Rubenstein points out that not everyone can accomplish the erotic successfully. Schiele’s art challenges through not only its subject matter but also in the positions of his subjects, the wandering lines that vibrate with tension, and the boisterous colors he employed. “Look at the red next to the green running through the figure in Fighter, says Rubenstein. “It speaks of something unspeakable.” Eitel-Porter concurs, “His use of unnatural colors and his gestural application of paint, with visible strokes to emphasize expression, sets Schiele apart.”


Egon Schiele: The Complete Works, by Jane Kallir (Harry N. Abrams, New York, New York)

Egon Schiele: Drawings and Watercolors, by Jane Kallir (Thames & Hudson, New York, New York)

Käthe Kollwitz

Home Worker
by Käthe Kollwitz, charcoal on
yellowish paper, 227/8 x 175/8.
Collection unknown.

Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945) saw much suffering and depicted it with an empathy rarely rivaled. Her husband was a doctor for the poor in Berlin, which likely played a role in her socialist sympathies. Losing her son in World War I prompted a lengthy depression. She also lost a grandson in World War II. As a result, her heartbreaking images of mothers crying over deceased infants strike a resonating chord.
“And she was such a great draftsman,” says Rubenstein. “Kollwitz could do so much with simple shapes. Over here may be a few wispy marks signifying hair, and then—boom, you are riveted right into that eye with a few strong lines.”
Kollwitz was primarily a graphic artist, confining her work largely to black-and-white imagery. “Her bold, graphic style reflects the immense human pain and suffering of the underprivileged,” comments Eitel-Porter. “That’s the basis of her subject matter. The world she depicts is veiled in shadow; only rarely are touches of color introduced.” Echoes Rubenstein, “With such simplicity, with such economy of means, she communicated great sympathy. She could make an incredible human statement with just burnt wood [charcoal] on paper.”


Catalogue of the Complete Graphic Work of Käthe Kollwitz, by August Klipstein (Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware)

Käthe Kollwitz Drawings, by Herbert Bittner (Thomas Yoseloff, New York, New York)

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