As I slid into the crystalline sea and felt the eddies of warm and icy waters swirl around me, I instantly thought back to a Gainsborough drawing I had recently seen at the Morgan Library in New York. How astonishing that my starting a swim in the Mediterranean should evoke the swirls of feathery strokes of black and white chalk that sang together on the yellow ground Gainsborough had prepared for his circa 1785 Lady Walking in a Garden, as he depicted her translucent ivory silk dress, with its astonishingly lilting play of lights. The moment’s experience reminded me just how powerful and evocative drawings can be.
Drawings, so diverse and yet so often united in an underlying imperative, became an unwitting theme during a quick trip I made to New York. The Gainsborough exhibition, Thomas Gainsborough: Experiments in Drawing, was the first in chronology (he lived from 1727 to 1788) of the artists whose work I saw. One of several exhibitions, always of high calibre, at the Morgan, it was just one small room, but oh, how fascinating. A selection of drawings in graphite, chalks, pastels and paint from the Morgan’s collection was amplified a little by drawings from private collections. There was so much of interest – Gainsborough’s skill in using pencil and chalk, smudged or incisively exact, his experiments with using oil paint or watercolour as emphasis, his use of varnishes to achieve paintings (even using skimmed milk and gum arabic as part of his “secret ingredients” for fixatives and varnishes). This highly successful artist went on experimenting with drawing media and techniques all his life – a lesson for every artist.
What interested me especially was his approach to drawing nature, especially trees. He did not always draw them en plein air; although he did indeed work outdoors a great deal, especially early on in his career, as he carefully noted the play of light and shade, masses of foliage and the contours of the landscape.
Nonetheless, right from his early days, he copied images from other artists, such as Dutch landscape painters. As time passed, he tended more and more to invent the landscapes - his famous worktable set-ups with stones, sticks and even broccoli for trees. He also evolved to an almost abstract rendering of trees and landscapes towards the end of his career, using the rich darks and lights massed to approximate the woods and hills.
This approach of combining en plein air drawing with assiduous copying of other artists’ prints and paintings parallels so many artists’ work methods today with photographs, videos, etc. I thus felt an instant sense of identity and unifying heritage – not only with Gainsborough but with the next artist whose work I saw at the Metropolitan Museum, Delacroix, the Romantic artist who dominated the French art world during the first half of the 19th century.
The exhibition was Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Delacroix. A larger and more diverse selection of approaches to drawings than Gainsborough’s show, this exhibition nonetheless reflected Delacroix’ questing, experimenting use of graphite, ink, chalk or even watercolour that was a hallmark of his entire life. He drew anything and everything. A great deal from real life – again, trees, which resonated immediately with me, but also horses, people, places, animals in the zoo, even cadavers. His six-month trip to Morocco provided him with so many drawings from which to develop paintings that apparently they provided inspiration for years.
At the same time, like Gainsborough, Delacroix copied old master prints, paintings from Raphael to Rubens and even caricatures. He was endlessly curious, and this understanding of how things worked and interacted, achieved through drawing, was then a passport to his superb finished drawings, preparatory studies for paintings, oil or watercolour paintings, frescoes or complex prints. His mastery in art derived, in large part, from his relentless curiosity and practice of drawing.
In the same way, the third draughtsman, whose work I saw, drew in an equally obsessive fashion. Wayne Thiebaud, Draftsman is a superb exhibition at the Morgan Library. Rising 98 now in age, Wayne Thiebaud achieved fame and respect last century for his instantly recognisable paintings of cakes, ice cream cones, gum-ball machines and trays of delicatessen food.
Complementing those simple yet iconic subjects are his paintings and drawings of powerfully upturned San Francisco street intersections and semi-bird’s-eye views of the landscape patterns along the Sacramento River. The Morgan exhibition had a goodly selection of all these themes, but there was much more that again resonated with me.
Like Gainsborough and Delacroix, he drew obsessively from real life. Granted his subject matter tended more to be cityscapes, manmade structures such as food and the landscape shaped by man. He also copied other artists’ work, such as echoing Daumier so carefully that every stroke, every wash was nearly identical to the original.
What also impressed me were the amazingly neat small squares and rectangles drawn in his drawing books, for the most part each a detailed neat small composition. His control and technical mastery are amazing, as shown in intimate, delicate graphite portraits that reminded me of Ingres’ work, or the intricate detail in charcoal depicting buildings that contrast with the broad sweeping swoops of the montagne russe streets of San Francisco.
As I bobbed about in the blissful Mediterranean, thinking about Gainsborough and the other two artists, I found it fascinating, and in a way almost reaffirming for me as a lover of drawing, that each of these artists, one in the 18th century, one in the 19th and the third in the 20th century, shared a lifelong common passion for drawing omnivorously, experimentally, questingly. In essence, really, to me, this endless curiosity to look, to understand, to find new voices within the parameters of, in this case, the discipline of drawing, is what being an artist is all about. It is a passport to endless interest and a wonderful conduit to a love of life.