Quick or Slow - which is best for Drawing? / by Jeannine Cook

The life drawing group in which I participate has a very sensible programme of one session of short poses, and then - normally - the following week, the same model poses for one long pose.

These sessions always get me thinking about the speed at which I draw and how fast or slowly other artists there draw. Some people can produce a very finished drawing in a remarkably short time, while others seem barely to have made many marks in the same time period.

Historically, drawing have always fallen into the categories of quick studies and finished drawings, but history seldom tells us how long each artist actually took to accomplish the drawing. Rembrandt, clearly, had a wonderful ability to draw fast and evocatively; his pen and ink drawings have a breathless immediacy on occasions, blots, drying pens, scribbles and everything in between. His drawing of Jesus and the Adulteress is spare and fast, as if he was thinking, planning, organising. Other drawings evoke a spur-of-the-moment view as he sees someone asleep or sitting in a moment of introspection, a moment that he wants to remember, a scene that he wants to record for the pure joy of drawing. Spare and elegant, his lines are fast and fluid.

Jesus and the Adulteress,  Rembrandt

Jesus and the Adulteress, Rembrandt

Granted, the medium somewhat dictates the speed at which an artist draws. Pen and ink, conte, graphite or charcoal are all relatively fast, and marks can be made expressively with quick results. When you get to silverpoint, things tend to slow down a lot. The time available to make a drawing is therefore important, and subject matter tends often to dictate the medium – if the scene is about to disappear, you chose a quicker, more impressionistic way of capturing it. Each artist also has an individual eye, choosing what is important to record. Some aim mainly to capture the essence of the subject; others get fascinated by the play of light, the spatial composition or other aspects which are more time-consuming to depict.

Adolph Menzel, for instance, often used a wonderful technique of drawing a person doing something from multiple poses on the same page.

Man scraping the  bottom of the pot, Adolph Menzel, 1815-1905 (Image courtesy of the BBC)

Man scraping the  bottom of the pot, Adolph Menzel, 1815-1905 (Image courtesy of the BBC)

In a way, he was a forerunner to William Kentridge, with his many images being drawn, erased, filmed and then refilmed after changes. Menzel was drawing fast, fluently - he was a master draughtman. Kentridge is a superlative draughtsman too, but his approach, innovative and very much of our era with its mix of media, tends ultimately to be a slow and meticulous process, as each drawing evolves, is recorded and then evolves again until its final concluding version in narrative.  As Kentridge remarked,  “The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and how we operate in the world.”

Drawing for Project ,  charcoal, William Kentridge (Image courtesy of Nitram Fine Art Charcoal)

Drawing for Project,  charcoal, William Kentridge (Image courtesy of Nitram Fine Art Charcoal)

Lots of approaches to drawing - mercifully! It means that each of us can be a tortoise or a hare in our drawing methods. The results are really what count.