Traditional Renaissance Drawing

Apollo Belvedere-Edme Bouchardon-1726

My Mariah-William Michael Yenkevich-2019

Drawing as it was perfected in the Renaissance was both a manual and an intellectual operation. The word disegno meant both drawing and design, and in that sense conflated the two: one drew to design, but one also implicitly designed (conceived) as one drew. The manual facilitated the intellectual, but the intellectual informed the manual as well. To draw was to thinkGiorgio Vasari said drawings best reveal the mind of the artist at work. The reason they did so was that Renaissance artists not only perfected the precision of drawing, they invested it with energy. That energy came from a certain speed. Drawing with intensity, with urgency, invested the drawing with life, which conveyed a more immediate sense of the artist's idea.

That's why the mark, the gesture, the pen or pencil stroke, is so important a part of Renaissance drawing and makes it so different from the laborious—maybe even tedious—academic drawings of the nineteenth-century French tradition. A Renaissance drawing is meant to be seen as a drawing, a set of marks of paper, not the equivalent of a black and white photograph. One can also see it as an act because the process by which it was made is evident (whether Raphael's sanguine strokes or Michelangelo's pen and ink hatches). The value of studying exemplary figures, and in drawing from life, was to shape the memory, not to produce a documentation of the subject for its own sake. One draws in the Renaissance tradition to remember because Memory (Mnemosyne) was mythically the mother of the Muses.

Drawing in the Renaissance was usually a means toward some other end. One of the most important ends was fresco painting. Because fresco demands speed and sureness of touch, drawing in preparation for fresco was invested with a similar energy. From the primo pensiero, or the first idea that Vasari prized so highly as a window into the artist's mind and a sign of lively investigation, to the modello presented to a patron, often then squared up for transfer, to the full size "cartoon" to be transferred onto the wall, drawings were both careful and effective. Since artists were expected to work ambitiously on the wall (and were often juggling multiple projects with many figures), fresco artists drew with a sense of urgency—not carelessness, but with the economy of gesture that comes from pushing oneself to do more, and more quickly. Never fussy or fastidious, Renaissance preparatory drawings for frescoes are confident exercises in the description of often moving forms in light.


The Problem with the Sight-Size Method of drawing...

Most realist and so-called "classical realist," schools and academies teach the sight-size method. Essentially a nineteenth-century French Realist technique, it depends on the accurate copying of a subject at the same size on a drawing or canvas. It is essentially a mechanical, measuring technique. It is not the way Renaissance artists drew; and throughout the eighteenth century, artists continued to draw on a surface that was not set up to parallel the subject they were drawing. Images of artists at work copying other works of art, or a subject in the field, show the artist working often on a portfolio on his or her lap, propped up on a chair or other support, etc. By constantly looking away from the subject to the drawing, the artist was slowly, progressively training the memory. And what one was after was not the transcription of a form onto a two-dimensional surface, but a training of the judgment toward the ability to invent a scene or figure. Sight-size is not a Renaissance technique, even though it may be "traditional," in the sense that it's been done for over a century. I draw with the Renaissance approach to drawing.


The Downside of Sight-Size

​As we say on the Disegno page, the purpose of drawing in the Renaissance was to train the memory, so the artist would be freed from the model to invent. Pietro Bellori criticized those artists who were "slaves to the model." By learning to observe without measuring, the artist is training her memory, and also her judgment: she is inculcating not just the subject, but its principles, its proportion, and its structure. Those things can then build a storehouse of memory for the process of invention. By relying instead on direct measuring and transcription at the same size as the subject, the sight-size method privileges accurate documentation overtraining the judgment of the mind and hand. As Michelangelo said, It is necessary to keep one's compass in one's eyes and not in the hand, for the hands execute, but the eye judges.




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