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Drawing on Tradition-

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

An essay on sketching from masterworks in museums- Brian Keeler

Tradition sustains us- allowing for innovation which invigorates us.

The above adage might be considered the guiding principle for the following observations.

It has long been an enjoyable practice of mine to sketch and draw from paintings and sculpture in our museums here in America and when I've been in the museums of Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Just this weekend I had the distinct pleasure of sitting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC where I availed myself of the lessons that are there from the study of so many beautiful works. This museum is a virtual treasure trove of beauty and knowledge. I feel like a kid in a candy shop, running from one great work to another, amazed at the superb accomplishments of our forbears. Sketching slows me down- way down. It is a contemplative place where the process of drawing and observation begins to unpack and reveal the essence underlying these works.

Above- A sketch done from a painting by Simon Vouet, the French artist of the 17th century,. The purpose of the drawing process is to help understand the underlying structure as well as the finesse of the final modeling. You can see in the sketch above that the diagonal lines of the design are brought out. There is also a counter diagonal (at right angles to the others) created by the light direction and cast shadows of the two heads. You will see an arrow at the top left tht indicates this.

Above- Keeler sketching from the large oil painting by Simon Vouet in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

I had set my sights set in advance on a painting by the French Baroque artist, Simon Vouet, whose painting, "Saint Jerome and the Angel" caught my attention for its beauty, simplicity of conception and incredible light- all conveyed with a limited palette of earth tones with deep chiaroscuro. I had sketched from this work previously, many years ago, but felt it still worth another period of study. I was not disappointed. We can glean many secrets and essences again- just like rereading a favorite book. This process often deepens our knowledge as our sensibilities mature and our priorities change.

The Vouet work shows this artist as a clear member of the Caravaggisiti club. These Baroque painters, mostly from Italy, seized on Caravaggio's barnstorming of visual language and develped it to their own uses. Just a few years ago we saw a major show at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC that featured another major exponent of this school, Valentin de Boulogne. One of his works, a tavern scene of musicians was also in this same gallery in the NGA.

What I learned while sketching was how masterfully the work by Vouet is orchestrated. The beauty of the design and conception is beyond question. Yet, we may wonder if he used a camera obscura or stretched a grid of strings on a frame, ( to visualize the scene) as Caravaggio is rumored to have done. After all, Brunelleschi first demonstrated the technique in the doorway of the Catherdral in Florence over 150 years before. This speculation is understandable as we want to know how he arrived at this conception of space and the figural ensemble. As with most masters, there is inherent drawing ability and finesse with composing. Many hours of drawing from life were part of the training of this painter that mere tools could not explain.

I like to understand the major divisions of space, the way the intervals work, how the slants and angles relate. This is part of my goal when drawing from old masters works. These geometric and armature-like underpinnings are really the basis and foundations. So in the Vouet work I eventally began to see the strong series of diagonals that were used in the work. They are shown in the sketch shown above. I like these rhythms and intervals much in the way a composer of music uses similar or corollary intervals to organize a composition. Viewers always marvel at details, which are rightfully appreciated, but the sweet stuff for me is the structure.

We love the modeling and forms of the figures in these Caravaggio school of artists. The nude or draped figure is often employed which brings out the inherent beauty of the human form and flesh. The modeling and clarity of the Vouet is remarkable too. A beautiful contraposto or opposing angles of the figures is employed. Saint Jerome's head is looking back and away from the angle of his torso toward the young angel. The angel's head is completely in shadow. We appreciate the beauty of the shadows and the mystery of the suggested rather than the overly articulated detail of some works. We see the poetry of light.

This work by Vouet is painted almost completely in tone- hence it could be called a tonalist work. We could think of this as painting with value or tone. The red sash and golden skin hues add some notes of color, and these hues come into play but all in the service of describing the forms. We appreciate therefore the sculptural quality of the painting- as the volumetric nature of the figures are expressed.

Above- This oil painting by the author, uses the same concept as the SImon Vouet paitning discussed here- which is the direction of art from a higher order or divine source. This 36" x 40" oil is titled "Still Life Arranged According to a Higher Order." It is available throught the Ferleman Gallery in Cumberland, MD.

The blblical narrative of the work- Jerome translating the Greek version of the Bible into Latin, renders the subject relevant and important to the Catholic Church of the 17th century in Italy and to many since. The theme of angelic intervention is appealing too. As we like to think of our higher selves, our Overself, or our soul, or God as helping direct us. I've done a painting on this very theme, (shown above) in which a model is posed above a still life to suggest the same concept.

Above- Sketching in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. This bronze statue of Bacchus and fawn is attibuted to an unknown 16th century Milanese sculptor. The author finds it to be similar if not a work by Gianbologna.

Above- a graphite drawing done from a bronze statue in the NGA in DC.

On the same day at the NGA, I also finished up two other sketches that I had started back in October. One was of a bronze sculpture of a male nude and fawn - depicting the God of wine, Bacchus. I think the work could be by Gianbologna, a sculptor of lowlands who worked primarily in Italy. The label attributes it to an unknown Milanese artist. Once again, apprecating the modeling and beauty of form were my take aways from the sketching session.

Finally on this Saturday at the NGA, I finished another sketch from a Rembrandt self portrait. The main take away here was an understanding of how beautifully soft the articulation was in this oil. The area between the hair, sideburns and that of the flesh of the temple is a case in point. This transition is beautifully gradual so as to be almost imperceptible. Yet from a distance we don't question the difference between the hair and skin. His gaze, one eybrow and furrowed forehead gives the impression that he looks at us in mid-sentence. We are face to face to the master across the hundreds of years- yet we feel the man and his spirit.

Above - A sketch from a self portrait of Rembrandt, done at the NGA in DC.

Above- A sketch done at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The subject was a canvas by Gerrit Von Honthorst, a Dutch Painter of the 17th century and follower of Caravaggio.

To attach oneself to genius, the masterworks of the past will facilitate learning and growth. We might even say that wisdom. insight and spirituality await us as many of these works, overtly or not seek to convey just these attributes. Many artists have done the same in the Louvre in Paris or in front of the Last Supper in Milan. The study of accomplished works through patient drawing reveals the timeless qualities of proportion and design, if we are willing to spend some time in front of these works.

To view videos of some of these works- click on the links below.

Drawing from the Simon Vouet painting- shown in the link below-

Drawing from the Rembrandt selfportrait in the link below-

Drawing from a bronze statue from Milan - 17th century

Below- a tutorial for drawing in charcoal and pencil- from the three graces in the Louvre in Paris and elsewhere-

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