Pencil sketch of a nude woman aiming a dagger at herself, from Death of Lucretia

Renaissance Figure Sketches

There is a long tradition in the visual arts of those learning their way up to study and copy from the masters. There is plenty to be said for this approach, the idea being to follow the visual thought process and decisions of someone who has mastered drawing or painting, to absorb some of their reasoning and technique, to learn enough of the practical nuances to then build your own methods upon.

This was very much how crafts and trades have been learnt for millennia, through apprenticeship and the atelier systems of teaching on the job as you assist and contribute. Today, even if you want to learn on your own, I think there is much to be said in studying the classic artists by drawing from them, both literally and figuratively. What you cannot glean by mere observation, you learn by replication, because there aren’t many deeper forms of observation than the act of drawing itself.

We think of cartoons as funny pictures and funny animation, in recent history, but the word is a much older one with a more serious history. A cartoon, from the Italian “cartone”, was a scale drawing used since the middle ages as a preparatory drawing for large paintings, frescoes, tapestries and such works. They were used as plans and guides for the artists to follow as they executed these time-consuming techniques on large scale artworks. Artists and designers still do this, calling them anything from sketches or thumbnails to layout drawings as a plan for the final work.

I decided I’d make some scaled down cartoons (in the older sense of the word) of paintings from the renaissance, and a couple of Greco-Roman sculptures, which often served as inspiration for renaissance artists in their figures, to learn how they dealt with the human figure and proportion. A reverse engineering of sort, to make a cartoon out of a finished work, but there is as much to be learnt in the copying as there is to learn in the simplifying forms and shapes into simpler lines, and this set of pictures is what resulted.

A very linear, contour drawing style was attempted. On one hand it is the antithesis of some of these richly layered and textured works of painting, a wonderful challenge to minimise, and on the other, it was also an important part of really understanding what was going on with these figures as the artist posed their models and put them down on paper, to begin with, all those centuries ago. I quite enjoyed this sketch into the past.