Renaissance to Goya: Spanish Old Master Prints & Drawings #1

November 19, 2013

An exhibition of Spanish Old Master drawings and prints came to Sydney, Australia, recently. The works are held by the British Museum in London, one of the main principal repositories of Spanish Old Master drawings and prints. The catalogue, Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain, is by Mark P. McDonald, published by The British Museum Press in 2012.

To prepare for the exhibition, I decided to try to copy them life-size from photos in the catalog. The exhibition covered several hundred years and the work  of many artist, so there was no way I could spend time attempting “fake” copies, exact in every detail. Instead, I moved steadily from one drawing and print to the next, getting a feel for the use of line and tone in each. I’ll post my copies of about two dozen drawings and prints, several at a time, with added notes about what I learned from looking at the originals.

The first thing that struck was me was how small many of them were. I had expectations of much larger works since today there’s a tendency to work large: A3 or A2-sized paper. Instead, many were seemingly small scraps of paper which had miraculously come down to our own time intact. Some showed pricking marks or squared for transfer to become paintings. Others were more detailed, ready to be handed over to an engraver to make prints. Still more bore the damage that comes with being used again and again as exemplars by art students at drawing academies and art schools.

The second thing that struck me was the materials used: mostly on white paper (though colored with age) without any prepared ground colour, linework done with a pen and brown ink combined with brown wash. White chalk was used to heighten the lights on occasion and black chalk was used as part of the squaring-up process for transferring to canvas. Many drawings featured a pen-drawn line border, perhaps with either an engraved print in mind or transfer to canvas for painting. Later drawings  were done in red chalk.

spanish old master drawing 1Miguel Barosso/Diego Lopez de Escuriaz, Christ Distributing Bread to his Disciples after his Resurrection, 1587-1589. 170x270mm. A4 Milini 150gsm sketchbook; graphite pencil, watercolor wash.

First up was a detail of Christ, in a pose not unlike the Apollo Belvedere dug up in Italy not too long before this was drawn. The original has been darkened almost entirely by a brown wash, with contours done in pen and brown ink (later pricked for transfer). White heightening has been used to create sculptural form. The original is very much bluer and browner than the catalog illustration. Very noticeable is the strong use of blue (a whitish, pale blue wash?) in the figure immediately to the left of Christ. This drawing is one showing pricking for transferring to canvas: the holes are incredibly small in size.

spanish old master drawing 2Alonso Berruguete (c.1489-1561). Assumption of the Virgin, 1555-1561. 313x193mm. A4 Milini 150gsm sketchbook; graphite pencil; colored pencils.

This one shows the strong influence Michelangelo had on the artist while in Italy. There was a tendency in the early years of the 16th century for artists to spend time in Italy before returning to Castile, for example, to work for the royal court. The first layer in the original was done in black chalk, followed by brush drawing in brown ink, then a wash with pen and brown ink, finishing with some heightening with white. The catalogue photo suggests some touches of blue throughout the figure as well, not just to reinforce some of the darks in brown ink wash but seemingly superimposed on the white highlights. The original was done on paper which was much darker than my off-white, possibly as a result of ageing rather than a prepared ground.

The pen outline, especially around the shoulders, seems to have been added last, almost as an afterthought. The grain of the laid wove paper is very obvious. What makes this drawing almost unique in the exhibition is the use of a pen line to imitate wood grain (see neck and chest area in particular). This drawing is thought to have been created with a potential sculpture in mind. The catalog illustration is somewhat darker than the original – there is much a more stronger sense of the pen cross-hatching. I’ve not seen any explanation for the use of the touches of blue.

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