Old Master drawings

Passion for Drawing by Jeannine Cook

There was a wonderful article in the November issue of Blouin Art+Auction magazine about Master Drawings and their current market state. Not all that long ago, collecting - or even appreciating - drawings was considered the domain of the few and far-between, the occasional person with a great deal of erudition, an environment where light and temperature control are carefully controlled, and, often, a good deal of money.

In terms of Master Drawings (loosely defined as works created by noted, independent artists and their followers, working from the mid-15th century to about 1800), the Art+Auction  article by Angela M.H. Schuster underlined the change in pace in selling these drawings.  Now, the feverish bidding in the auction house sales has spread from other fields of art to drawings, and the prices are beginning to soar. Passion for drawings is rising.  Take, for example, this drawing which the Duke of Devonshire recently sold from his remarkable Chatsworth collection of art.  It was expected to reach 15 millions pounds sterling at auction in 2012.  In fact, it nearly doubled that estimate,

Raphael’s Head of an Apostle, a drawing for his last painting, Transfiguration, 1519-20, black chalk (Image courtesy of Sotheby's)

Raphael’s Head of an Apostle, a drawing for his last painting, Transfiguration, 1519-20, black chalk (Image courtesy of Sotheby's)

Schuster quotes Matteo Salamon, of Milan's Salamon & Company (specialists in 15th-19th century art), as saying, "I sell Old Master paintings to buy Old Master drawings.  When I sell a painting, even an important one, it's just business.  When I talk to clients who are interested in drawings, I know they are passionate collectors.  Most who buy a drawing do so because they like it, not because they were told to like it or because others will admire it."  This is another example of the auction price being far higher than the estimate, $47,500 versus a $20-30,000 estimate. 

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Il Guercino (Cento 1591 - 1666 Bologna),  Head of a young man in profile, looking down to the left,  red chalk  (Image courtesy of  Sotheby's)

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Il Guercino (Cento 1591 - 1666 Bologna), Head of a young man in profile, looking down to the left, red chalk (Image courtesy of Sotheby's)

I find the same is true in my own art world.  I am always delighted and flattered when someone likes my drawings and wants to acquire one.  When I began specialising in silverpoint drawing, I found that almost no one knew about the medium, which was entirely understandable, given its rarity, but I also found that few people appreciated that you could have a drawing as a finished work of art.  That has changed completely.  As drawing has become more accepted, recognised and esteemed in the art world, so people have become increasingly passionate about the different versions of drawing. Be it silver or metalpoint, graphite, pen and ink, coloured pencils, charcoal or any other dry medium, there are people who fall in love with works done in one or more of these media.

It seems to be a special "addiction", this yen for drawing.  Both for the artist producing drawings and for those who start to appreciate and/or collect them, there is always the next horizon.  Perhaps there is the aspect of size and accessibility: most drawings are of an intimate size and need for the viewer to be close to them properly to see and appreciate them.  Small wonder that the "cabinet de dessins" was traditionally in the heart of a home, where the drawings were close to hand and daily companions.

There is another aspect of drawings that attracts people: the fact that a drawing is often an exploration, a means for the artist to understand something. Renaissance artist were famed for their studies - think of Leonardo da Vinci seeking to understand everything from human anatomy to how water flows, for instance.

Whirlpools of water, from Leonardo da Vinci, pen and ink,  1508-09, Windsor, Royal Library.

Whirlpools of water, from Leonardo da Vinci, pen and ink,  1508-09, Windsor, Royal Library.

That questing, that analysis, that observation - the act of drawing in that manner makes a drawing accessible on a deep level to a viewer. The artist shares with the viewer his or her journey through the artistic process, as the drawing is created.  In essence, a drawing is a very modern affair, just as much a "happening", a performance, a mise en scène, as any of the other versions of art so popular today.

No wonder people get passionate about drawings!  They can be dramatic and addictive - just the ingredients for today's world.

The Eye of the Art Collector by Jeannine Cook

Thanks - once again! - to ArtDaily.org's listings, I happened on an up-coming Sotheby's sale of old Master Drawings from a private collection. I spent a fascinated hour on their site, going through the E-Catalogue of the drawings, some eighty of them, the ideal occupation for a dark, rainy day.

It is always extremely interesting to view a collection of art formed by one person, particularly a person who has a trained eye and knowledge of the media involved. I quote from the news release about this collector (who apparently spent about 25 years assembling this collection). "In his very personal forward to the sale catalogue, the collector who assembled this remarkable group of drawings wrote that he embarked on collecting “with the bold aim of looking over the artist’s shoulder”. There can be no question that he succeeded in this aim. The light that these extremely varied studies shed on the artistic creative process is both intense and wide ranging: we see every moment in the artist’s thought process revealed and illuminated."

There is a remarkable energy and life evident in the drawings this collector assembled. The artists are clearly in the throes of excitement and creativity. Famous names or not, it does not matter. The hallmarks of these drawings are immediacy, directness, sureness of touch and stroke. The collector does indeed describe well what he sought - and found - when he selected these works. Different media, different subject matter, some clearly well thought-out and planned, others on the spur of the moment, catching images almost on the fly... Some as aide-mémoires, others as exploration. In short, the collection came across to me as a most interesting selection of artists' emotions, desires, endeavours, aims... running a gamut of approaches and techniques. Little interesting items too, such as remarks about an exquisite study of a seated woman by Jean-Antoine Watteau. "It was executed in a combination of media that Watteau used only occasionally, but to striking effect: the majority of the figure is built up with a network of silvery strokes of graphite (a very rare medium in Old Master Drawings), (my emphasis) while the accents in the face and hands are in a more typical red chalk, an extremely effective juxtaposition that creates a lively yet utterly elegant figure."

When you go back and try to find out about the use of graphite before the early 18th century, it is indeed hard, as a neophyte, to find allusions to many graphite drawings. Pure graphite, first mined in Borrowdale, England, in the 1500s, seems initially to have been used for under drawing in the 16th century. It was more forgiving than metalpoint, especially silverpoint, the draughtsman's favoured medium during Renaissance times in spite of silverpoint's linear qualities and permanence of mark. Graphite does not seem to have been used much for drawing until well into the 17th century. Artists tended to favour chalks, red and black, as well as charcoal for studies and finished drawings alike. (Interestingly, the Venetian artists continued to favour black chalk, whilst the perhaps more flamboyant Florentine and Roman artists preferred the harder red chalk with which they could show off their skills!) Graphite became widespread only in the 18th century, with the increasing difficulty of obtaining good-quality natural chalks and the simultaneous production of a fine range of graphite pencils after the invention of a graphite pencil in Nuremberg in 1662.

Graphite drawings then become far more widespread: John Constable, Jongkind and later John Singer Sargent, for example, all used graphite in their work, particularly when working plein air.

Self-Portrait, 1806, John Constable, (Image courtesy of the Tate, London)

Self-Portrait, 1806, John Constable, (Image courtesy of the Tate, London)

Ingres was famed for his use of hard graphite pencils when drawing his wonderful detailed portraits of people.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867).  Study for "Raphael and the Fornarina  "  (detail), ca. 1814. Graphite on white wove paper, 10 x 7 3/4 in. (25.4 x 19.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867). Study for "Raphael and the Fornarina" (detail), ca. 1814. Graphite on white wove paper, 10 x 7 3/4 in. (25.4 x 19.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975

By the turn of the 19th century, Cezanne and so many others commonly used pencils, as have we all done since in the art world - often to great effect.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) , Hortense Fiquet (Madame Cézanne) Sewing,  ,c. 1880, Graphite Samuel Courtauld Trust: Princes Gate Bequest, 1978

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Hortense Fiquet (Madame Cézanne) Sewing, ,c. 1880, Graphite
Samuel Courtauld Trust: Princes Gate Bequest, 1978

But back to the Sotheby E-Catalogue of the drawings that occasioned my little foray into the rarity of Old Master graphite drawings... (and by the way, the definition of Old Masters in Western art is work executed before 1800...), it is well worth going through this collection of images of drawings. It allows one to remember how interesting it can be when one sees an art collection formed by one person with the courage of his or her own convictions and erudition.

Defining your identity as an artist by Jeannine Cook

Defining yourself as an artist is a lifelong endeavour. Each of us aspires to have a singular voice, a hallmark style and an artistic identity unlike anyone else. Achieving one's own style as an artist is complex, on-going and both technical and psychological. First of all, I believe, it has to do with defining who you are as a person and what you want to say, overall, through your art. It also has to do with hanging on to your belief in yourself, being willing always to learn and adapt, but nonetheless, being true to your own core identity. Sometimes that can be hard, especially when tough economic times demand lots of compromises.

One tool which I find very useful to help me define my identity is drawing. Whether it is with charcoal, graphite, pen and ink, conte crayon, chalk or silverpoint, it does not matter. It is the act of drawing that helps strip things down to bare bones, to try to get at the core of what I am trying to say. In other words, to define my art and thus to define me as an artist. Drawing is a tool with two rather different uses. The first is to make a finished drawing, a work of art that stands alone. The second is to draw small, quick studies for composition, distribution of lights and darks, etc. in preparation for a painting.

Lot Drunk, Rembrandt, 1632

Lot Drunk, Rembrandt, 1632

Rembrandt, Jesus and the Adultress

Rembrandt, Jesus and the Adultress

Drawing, unlike painting, is a direct, spontaneous act, indicative of emotions and thoughts in fresh and unadorned fashion. Many of the great Old Master drawings will leave errors and show corrections - a new line of a cheekbone on top of one that was off in proportion, an arm which has changed position slightly since the first line was put down, a tangle of lines where the artist was thinking of how to depict something or even blobs of ink where the pen "misbehaved". Rembrandt had many a tussle with his pens and ink but very frequently, that drawing could be readily recognised as one done by Rembrandt.

Try using drawing, any drawing, as a pathway to defining more clearly who you are as an artist. It is often a surprising and enlightening exercise - and fun as well.