Masters: Ingres Materials

0704ingrtease1_x600Ingres taught us much about contours and portraiture. Here, we offer an excerpt from the feature about how the artist's use of graphite on smooth white paper was ahead of his time.

by Mark G. Mitchell

Portrait of La

1817, graphite,
8 5/8 x 6 13/16.

“So familiar to us are both the materials [graphite on smooth white paper] and the manner that we forget how extraordinary they must have seemed at the time,” wrote Agnes Mongan, a former director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “David had used white paper and occasionally a pointed graphite pencil, but never with such constancy, such subtlety or such harmony. Ingres’ manner of drawing was as new as the century.”

First mass-produced in Germany in the early 1660s, graphite pencils weren’t exactly new in Ingres’ day. Still, “fine pencil drawing comes along rather late in art history,” notes Austin, Texas, painter Phillip Wade. “Everything from the time of Raphael was a blunter black chalk or red chalk or pastel, and the drawings seem rather broad. So technical innovations can make a difference in what things look like—just like oil painting created a whole different world from that of tempera painting.”

Author Avigdor Arikha wrote that Ingres “drew his portraits mostly with graphite at first using a variety of techniques—hatching, dotting, and even stump—and evolving quickly to greater economy, using line and hatching only, alternating between harder and softer gradations, the hardest being ‘good, firm English 3H pencils.’”

“We talk about the richness of his darks and the luminosity of his drawing,” Washington, DC, painter and art professor Frank Wright says. “He drew with really hard pencils, not so much soft pencils, and he drew with delicate, parallel shading. It looks like overall tone, but if you put them under magnification, you see these fine lines. I can’t figure out how someone could get such richness using such hard pencils.

“But he drew on coated paper,” Wright continues. “Ordinary paper is very absorbent, but if you cover it with gesso, or white tempera, and the coating dries, it completely changes the surface. Ingres drew on coated English Whatman’s paper, which made his graphite drawings look like silverpoint (drawing with a piece of metal onto a gesso-coated paper, then the drawings tarnish in time to a golden brown). Today there’s coated paper called Ingres, named after him.

“Something wonderful happens with his pencil line on the coated paper,” Wright continues. “The medium is so much of the expression. The trouble in more recent times is that the term pencil drawing has turned into pencil sketch. When people talk about pencil sketching they are talking about a certain casualness of attitude in drawing, where they’re being nonchalant and sort of messing around. But real drawing has to do with the exploration of the drawing medium.”

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