DRAWING ON THE MARGINS
WHEN Giorgio Vasari, the great biographer of the Italian Renaissance painters, sculptors and architects, declared in 1550 that drawing was ‘‘ the father of our three arts’’, he did not mean simply that a bit of sketching would be helpful to anyone engaged in these practices. The word he used, disegno, also referred to what we would call cognate design, and indeed much more: by the middle of the 16th century the term implied a complex amalgam of graphic processes and theoretical reflections that grew more intellectually top-heavy as the century wore on.
Drawing as a foundation of artistic practice began to develop when paper started to be produced on a large scale in the middle of the 15th century. Parchment and vellum were too expensive to be used casually, and although early fresco painters loosely sketched their compositions on the undercoat of plaster, or arriccio, using charcoal reinforced with a red ochre paint, this guiding drawing was partially covered by each successive day’s section of the fine plaster, intonaco, on which the painting was executed, so the artist had to work from memory in transferring the image.
With the greater availability of paper it became possible to make many more sketches from life, either from models in the studio, often studio assistants who posed for the socalled garzone drawings, or, as Leonardo da Vinci recommended, from the attitudes and gestures of real people seen in the streets and marketplaces. In Leonardo’s hands and most obviously in his anatomical studies, drawing became a powerful new organon of knowledge, a tool potentially more powerful than words, as he himself insisted. By the high Renaissance, with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, the practice of drawing had led to an understanding of the body, in its structure and movement, comparable at last to that of antiquity, even if reached by a different route, for ancient art owed little, if anything, to anatomical dissection.
At the same time, a range of different media and techniques of drawing continued to evolve in response to different stylistic and expressive priorities, and different kinds of drawing were employed for the various stages in the production of a given work. A large fresco project, for example, might now begin with a series of invention sketches aimed at