The first part of this essay includes an introduction and a section on drawings for study. The second part is the beginning of the discussion of drawings as compositional studies for paintings. The third part continues the discussion of drawings as studies for paintings. This final part discusses finished portrait drawings and includes suggestions for looking at any drawing.
Reminder: The Morgan Library in New York City will have master drawings from the Thaw Collection on display from September 29, 2017 to January 7, 2018. It should be a great place to study what I’m discussing in this series of posts.
Finished portrait drawings
Sometimes artists produce drawings not as studies or preparatory sketches, but as finished works. In this post, we look at three finished portrait drawings by Rubens of his children.
Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Coral Necklace, ca. 1619
This drawing is justly famous: Rubens did a remarkable job of capturing a young child at a quiet moment. How does he achieve that fine-skinned, dewy look? The crosshatched lines on the child’s pink cheeks are so thin and close together that they’re almost invisible to the naked eye. And look at the hair: isn’t it remarkable that Rubens managed to make it appear fine and silky, without attempting to render every strand?
The child is wearing a coral necklace, which was believed to protect the wearer from evil and illness.
Lady in Waiting to the Infanta Isabella (possibly Rubens’ daughter), ca. 1623
In a photograph, this girl’s ruff and dress would be more full of detail than her face. Part of what distinguishes art from photography is the fact that the artist can choose to downplay the importance of any part of what he sees: in a way that a camera lens cannot, the artist selects what he wants to include and emphasize. In this drawing, the elaborate costume is barely sketched in, and Rubens has focused all the detail work on the face.
Even on the face, Rubens was selective. He indicated the bone structure by very fine shading (as he did on the face of his young son) and by the addition of white highlights. The use of those wide patches of white helps convey the idea that she’s very young, her skin texture flawless.
Look closely at the girl’s expression. Are the eyes fully open, half closed, looking at the viewer, looking to the side? Look at her mouth: is it open, closed, smiling, frowning? What is this girl thinking about? What kind of person is she? The theme of a portrait is the character of the sitter. Since this is a finished drawing rather than a sketch, we can speculate on what Rubens intended to convey.
Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Red Felt Cap, 1625-1627
Compare this sketch to that of Rubens’ daughter and to the sketch of the same boy at a much younger age (the first drawing in this post). How is the hair different? What about the skin: do you get a sense of the texture and the way it covers muscles and bones by the way the shading is applied? How did Rubens use color differently than in the boy’s earlier portrait? That hat: what’s it made of? Silk, satin, wool, fur? What is it about the lines that tells you that?
And, as for the girl: what sort of person is this boy, as presented by Rubens? If he were a kid from your third-grade class, which one would he be? What makes you think that?
Summary of what to look at in drawings
- Form. Look at the outline of the figure. Has the artist experimented with it? How do the changes shift the emphasis?
- Lines. Are they bold or tentative? Does the artist look like he’s thinking on paper, or recording something he’s already decided on? How would your reaction change if the lines were much heavier or lighter?
- Light & shadow. How are they indicated: hatching, cross-hatching, stippling, broad strokes, added white? Where do they add emphasis?
- Texture: How is it indicated? What does it emphasize, or what would be lost if the indications of texture were gone?
- Content. What’s emphasized by the position of the figures and the amount of detail?
- If you’re impressed with Rubens’ abilities as a draftsman, go look at some of his finished paintings. They’re amazing. Rubens is famous for his ability to render life-like skin tones, which he accomplished by applying thin layers of oil paint: look at the face of his wife in Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment, and Their Son Peter Paul (at the Metropolitan Museum). He’s also exceedingly good at rendering textures in oil, as you can see in the same painting. The Met’s Rubens works are currently on display in Galleries 628 and 630.
- Shown in the same galleries with the Rubens paintings at the Metropolitan Museum are many by his pupil van Dyck, another eminent portraitist. What’s different about their styles? What’s different about the attitude of the people they paint?
- The Metropolitan has rotating exhibitions of its vast collection of drawings and prints on the second floor, in Gallery 690. Go up the grand staircase and turn left down the long corridor that leads to the 19th-century European paintings galleries.
Recommended books on drawings and on Rubens
- The catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum’s 2005 exhibition of Rubens’ drawings is available in a hefty paperback for a hefty $50, hardcover $65. It has excellent reproductions, as you’d expect from any recent MMA publication.
- Dover Library’s book of 44 Rubens drawings is available from Amazon for under $6. For that price, you only get B&W reproductions, which fall short when the original drawing was in several colors. Still, it’s cheap and in large format (8.5 x 11″).
- To look at drawings by artists other than Rubens, choose a favorite painter and search the shelves in the Metropolitan Museum’s store (they have a section organized by artist), or do a Google search of the artist’s name plus the word “drawing.” On Amazon, the page on the Dover Library’s book of Rubens’ drawings will refer you to many others in the same inexpensive series. Since drawings are usually only a few colors, you may be able to find older, cheaper books. NOTE: If you’re looking for reproductions of works in color, any book earlier than ca. 1990 will probably have color reproductions that are poor by today’s standards – with the exception of books by high-end publishers such as Abrams. If you’re ordering online, check the dimensions of the book. To see the details of drawings, the reproductions must be of reasonable size. There’s a reason art books are often coffee-table size.
- My favorite book on Rubens, which has been out of print for some time, is Andrew Morrall’s Rubens, in the History and Techniques of the Great Masters series. It offers a brief biography of Rubens, followed by reproductions of ten paintings, with details of each and comments on Rubens’ technique.
- Another out-of-print but worthwhile book is Susan Lambert’s Reading Drawings, A Selection from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Published for an exhibition in 1984, it covers drawing surfaces, media and techniques, then drawing for study purposes, drawing as “thinking on paper,” and drawing for utility (sketches for items in other media, technical illustrations, etc.). I seldom look at a subway map without thinking of this book. The illustrations, mostly in black and white, are pleasingly crisp.