Saturday, November 17, 2007

Art in the Making - Underdrawings

In the Big Drawing Book Review, I'm trying to include some books about drawings rather than only having 'how to draw' books.

How drawing contributes towards painting might be thought to be a 'how to' topic but when the drawings and paintings in question date back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries then they are also very much about art appreciation as well.

Art in the Making: Underdrawings in Renaissance Paintings (see right for an image of the cover) is a book published as a catalogue by the National Gallery in London for the 2002 exhibition of the same name.
Hidden below the surface of many paintings are the original preliminary drawings made when the works were executed - and modern technology can allow us to see them. This exhibition reveals and examines such underdrawings in important Renaissance paintings in the National Gallery collection from Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. These include Bruegel's 'The Adoration of the Kings', Raphael's 'The Procession to Calvary', Pontormo's 'Joseph with Jacob in Egypt', Altdorfer's 'Christ taking Leave of his Mother' and works by Crivelli, Memling, Giorgione, Cranach and Lochner. The brilliant preliminary drawings revealed beneath these familiar paintings are extraordinary feats of Renaissance draughtsmanship which have remained invisible until now.
National Gallery PR
I'm less interested in the technology which allows such drawings to be revealed than I am in the approaches artists used to produce underdrawings, the materials they used, how drawings were developed prior to the execution of the painting and the styles they used to draw as opposed to paint.

The book comprises four essays which introduce the book and consider the materials used for underdrawing and then how drawings and underdrawings developed in 'The North' as opposed to drawing and design for Italian Renaissance painting. The catalogue then considers and explains in detail - with images - 16 paintings and their associated underdrawings - with over 300 illustrations in total.
Underdrawings are the preliminary drawings on the panel (or canvas) that has been prepared for painting; subsequently they will become covered by the paint layers themselves. ....underdrawings vary enormously in extent, complexity, style and technique......often underdrawings are not followed precisely at the painting stage; occasionally they differ dramatically from the finished composition. Much of the interest in studying underdrawings lies in what they reveal about the creative processes of the artist. Understanding the complexity of a painting may involve following the evolution of an artist's ideas from preliminary sketches and drawings on paper, through preparatory underdrawings and revised outlines to the complexity of the final painting.
The 'art in the making' series of exhibitions have been some of the most popular exhibitions the National Gallery has run. I know that I for one count myself as one of those people who revels in the forensic material which reveals the process of how a painting is developed. I love seeing the sketchbooks and drawings for a painting when these are exhibited with the finished work and I also love seeing paintings which are half finished - such as the Manchester Madonna - so you can see how an artist works through different stages.

I don't know if there are a lot of 'like minds' out there reading this but if you recognise any of those feelings then this book is one you will love.

However, if you like to get stuck straight into painting and don't do much in the way of preliminary drawings, then my guess is you will either be bored by this sort of 'academic' book or, alternatively, reading it might make you want to think about reconsidering your practice.

For those who like drawing - but who tend to start with a 'finished' drawing without much if any preliminary work, this book will show you how great artists in the past worked hard at developing a drawing of their composition before they started to develop the 'finish'. I guess a lot of people might be surprised by the extent to which a lot of the artist's 'workings' are still evident in the underdrawings.

Up until the advent of technology, the only evidence for the nature of drawing undertaken has been when those drawings were not developed and subsequently have not deteriorated. For example, the drawing in Da Vinci's very large cartoon of 'The Virgin and Child with St Anne' is much less refined in places than one might expect. I'm always surprised by the foot in the bottom left jand corner in that cartoon as it's very 'rough and ready' in appearance! (Use the zoom function in the link to inspect this drawing in detail)

At the end of the book there is a very comprehensive set of endnotes for the references within the text plus a bibliography. The academic in me relishes such detail!

One of the most amazing things about this book is its current reduced price of £9.00 (for a limited period) which is simply amazing for a book of this sort.

This is not a book which will interest everybody - but for those who like to understand drawing and painting processes better and/or are interested in art history then, in my opinion, this book offers exceptional value.



  1. Very interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing all your information and doing the hard work for me. :)


  2. Well I'm not so sure about the hard work!

    I just wish there were more books around about how artists in the past have used drawing in their work.


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