DRAW­ING ON THE MAR­GINS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

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