Charcoal & Collaboration: Part 1

Learning from Antiquity

One of the most compelling aspects of charcoal drawing is the immediacy of the artist’s hand to which the viewer is treated. Each stroke or shadow can be read almost as if it is a line of a text, with the savvy connoisseur being able to trace the progression of a work almost as if it is the prose of a story. At the same time, charcoal and chalk works on paper reveal the role of the media as a means of study and collaboration. Throughout history, drawings after the work of others proved essential in the development and advance of artistic technique, so it is through these works on paper that we can gain better understanding of both artistic process and progress.


Michelangelo, Study for Adam (Sistine Chapel), 1510-1511 Red Chalk on Paper – The British Museum

During the Renaissance, artists began relying increasingly on this technique of drawn study for their training, in part thanks to the growth of the artistic workshop (which we’ll cover in a future post) but also due to the prevalence of antique sources. The Renaissance is so named for the rebirth of antiquity, both from an ideological standpoint and also from a visual one. Renaissance artists understood that the masters of the ancient Greco-Roman world, including sculptors from Myron to Skopas, had an uncanny understanding of anatomy, proportion, and the movement of body through space. Wanting to equal this expertise, Renaissance artists studied what survived of antiquity with utmost diligence.


Peter Paul Rubens, Study for the Laocoön Group, 1604-1608 Black Chalk on Paper – Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

At the same time, some Renaissance figures used this study of antiquity as a vehicle for collaboration by incorporating fragmentary ancient objects as the basis for new artistic expression. Such is the case with a figure such as Michelangelo. His devoted study, for example, after the celebrated Belvedere Torso, a fragmentary sculpture from the 1st century CE owned by Pope Julius II, was translated into several of his most treasured paintings in the early 16th century. From the deconstruction of the figure (seen in the preparatory drawing of Adam for the Sistine Chapel ceiling) to the image of Saint Bartholomew included in Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment, it becomes clear that Michelangelo enjoyed the exchange with the antique form in a collaborative context.


Anonymous, Study of the Head of Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön, 19th century Black Chalk on Paper – Harvard Art Museum)

Such study continued well into the Baroque era, with iconic figures, such as Peter Paul Rubens, traveling from northern Europe to partake in classical study in Rome in an effort to both grasp the principles of antique as well as contemplate how this study could factor into their own artistic production. By the end of the 17th century, the practice of study after the antique was firmly ensconced as a crucial component of artistic education, a practice that continues today. We still look to these masterworks of antiquity as a source of inspiration and education, but we can also embrace them as our Renaissance predecessors did, seeing them as a launching pad for collaboration that begins with a few artful strokes of charcoal. Have you studied after ancient sources? Has your work ever incorporated this process of “rebuilding’ similar to Michelangelo’s work? Share your story with us!

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