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A Tale of Two Tassels - Raphael and Holbein in The National Gallery, London

March 3, 2017

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LINE FOR LINE - Michelangelo

Faithfully copying Old Master drawings and sketches is a time-honored tradition amongst artists and students of art.


It’s universally considered one of the more reliable ways of learning to draw and has been a popular practice for centuries. I personally used copying Old Master drawings (and ancient statuary) as a sort of art school for the better part of 5 years in my 30’s; so I’ll attest personally to the validity of the copyist-as-student experience. There’s a process of osmosis where you can’t help but absorb some of the tricks and solutions the Masters employ.


Being reliant upon copying in my own education I was intrigued with the modern advent of tablet-screens, which allow artists to not just copy Old Master drawings, but easily magnify, trace, and duplicate those works directly on the monitor. What might we learn by using a modern tablet to make line-for-line copies of  Old Master sketches? Did they use "their own" distinctive lines? What constitutes individual style? Are there any universal traits in Old Master drawings? If so could I apply them to my own drawing? What more can we learn about the thinking and psychology of these artists, in their moments and rituals of actual creation/creativity, by physically duplicating their drawings… line for line? I'm on a quest to answer these questions!






I chose this drapery study by Michelangelo rather randomly. It's not the type of image that we typically associate with Michelangelo. Ordinarily we imagine titanic and godlike masculine figures; in fact, the term "Michelangelesque" is practically shorthand for 'muscular male nudes.' I'm sure I'll return to draw one of his more typical figures in the future, but I chose this sketch quite simply because it leapt off the page at me.



I was intrigued by the way he combined his hatching technique with his ink-wash technique (very sparingly, with the wash) to so convincingly depict the volume, folds and various falls of cloth.  Because I was more concerned with his process than with his final image, this graphic explores his step-by-step method (1, 2, 3, etc) and examines the steps he took, rather than concentrating 100% on placing my lines directly above his. But I promise I'll come back and do that soon... 


The following notes aren’t a scientific analysis, I'm just an artist and these are my subjective thoughts.


The first thing Michelangelo does is sketch in the basic outlines of the forms (1). This preliminary line drawing consists of essentially "capturing the edges" of the shapes he sees as comprising the drapery and torso. He looks beyond all detail, at first, to place these large blocks of form. Each of these will be progressively delineated in more and more detail. (If you're an artist, this is a no brainer... you always sketch 'from the outside in' but if you're self-taught, even this simple lesson can be a revelation).


The second thing (2) Michelangelo does is: start drawing! Michelangelo LOVES draftsmanship. You know because it shows. Along with Leonardo it's safe to say that he put "drawing" the way we know it - as a legitimate artistic pursuit of it's own - on the map. Before those two nobody saved their drawings or showed them off as exhibit-worthy pieces in their own right. After them: drawings are seen as sacred. Not a minute has passed, in the 500 years since they walked the earth, that the wealthiest collectors in the world haven't competed with money to own even a single sheet of their drawings. Michelangelo's love for the line is evident everywhere here.


While he does (in the next phase, step 3) use washes of ink to build up his tones, they are subordinate to the linework of his hatching technique. This is a drawing about lines, as much as it's about a piece of cloth. His original drawing serves the dual purpose of being a useful drapy study for his future reference; but also is a sterling example of his precision draftsmanship; specifically his cross hatching technique(s). You don't put this many 1,000's of lines into a drawing unless you love what you're doing. And to make it look fresh, easily dashed off, and organically natural is no small feat. There's nothing laborious, or stilted, or mechanical about this drawing.


What you don't see without looking VERY closely at the original is the amount of stippling he does. Stippling is when you draw with dots, instead of with lines. Many of the midtones in his line work are achieved by carefully placing miniscule dots between the lines, or in the blank spaces. They are so small they're hard to make out individually but taken as a whole, the eye perceives them as solid tones of gray. 





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