The Didactic Nature of Drawings
Part II: Learning from the Masters

Didactic Nature of Drawings

One of the charcoal medium's most essential benefits is its effectiveness for the artist who wishes to study the line, contour, and shading of another. This aspect is particularly important when that source drawing was composed by one of the masters of art history. The last blog focused on how these past masters studied from ancient examples; as a compliment to that prior post, this week's blog centers on the study of Old Master drawings of the 16th and 17th centuries. A tradition begun by artists of the same era, the practice developed over subsequent generations of up-and-coming artists who used the work of these celebrated predecessors as a significant sourcebook both for inspiration and for charting their own artistic course.

As mentioned in our last installment, Renaissance and Baroque figures from Raphael and Michelangelo to Rubens and Rembrandt were prolific draughtsmen. They each executed numerous studies for their commissions, many of which became iconic compositions now treasured. While many of these studies were after ancient sculptural fragments, some looked to the work of their relative contemporaries for inspiration. Such was often the case, for example, in the career of Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens, whose influential trip to Rome around the dawn of the 17th century transformed his artistic style to the one for which he is best known today. Rubens studied after antiquity but also found the work of his Renaissance forefathers Raphael and Michelangelo attractive, sketching and drawing from these 15th century figures with great frequency. His study, particularly of the work of Michelangelo, proved essential in the development of his own approach to the figure, epitomized in masterworks such as The Raising of the Cross (1610) and Study of Ignudo, After Michelangelo (1630-1633). See image above left.


Following the lead of figures like Rubens, the tradition of study from contemporary and past masters became firmly ensconced in artistic education over the next generations. For these followers, this study presented a means to learn the skills of great artistic predecessors while also defining their own artistic approach. What makes this practice so remarkable was that it drew the attention of artists from a diverse range of perspectives. From 18th-century Neoclassicist Jacques Louis David (see image on right. Study After Michaelangelo, 1790) to 19th-century Scottish portraitist and genre scene painter Sir David Wilkie artists flocked to the paintings and drawings of the Old Masters to learn from their process and to overcome challenges they experienced in their own compositions. In many regards, these drawings were a sort of open dialogue across time between two artists, a master and a pupil, both of whom were on course for artistic acclaim.

Have you turned to an Old Master (or any other historical artist) for inspiration in your work? What drew you to their study? Did it help you overcome a challenge you faced? Tell us – we'd be thrilled to hear your story!

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