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June 05, 2003

Torn from the Pages of Friedrich's Sketchbooks


Again, as I threatened, I’m sharing some of the contents of my sketchbooks. Both of my examples today are copies after paintings.

I make such a copy from a desire to explore the visual logic of an artist—how does he or she produce their signature effects? I suspect some part of my brain thinks it knows and wants to test its hypothesis, although my “normal” consciousness hasn’t a clue (as usual). So I get a sketchbook and start drawing, and see what comes out.

The first sketch is after “The Felicity of the Regency” by Peter Paul Rubens. The original is with the rest of Rubens’ Marie de Medici cycle in the Louvre, which I’m sorry to say, is not where I made this drawing. I believe Ingres as he led his pupils through the halls of the museum forced them to shade their eyes so they wouldn’t see these paintings, claiming that Rubens couldn’t draw, which Ingres must have known was nonsense, and that he was “a butcher” which I suspect is much closer to the truth—for Ingres, anyway.

In any event, I made this as a pencil drawing and went over it with acrylic paints, because I was investigating how Rubens modeled his heroic nudes, which are both incredibly three dimensional and full of muscular energy (not bad for patches of paint on a 375-year-old-canvas.) Moreover, I had noticed that despite creating terrific heroic nudes in one painting after another—figures that in anybody else’s paintings would have hogged the limelight and turned everything else into mere background—Rubens somehow integrated these figures into the rest of the image so that you looked at the whole canvas.

What I discovered is that Rubens used his modeling, and particular his highlights, to create linear webs all over the canvas that channel the eye to and fro, around and down, loop the loop. I first noticed this when I realized that his highlights weren’t isolated little puddles of paint, but either physically or by extension connected to each other, pulling your attention along with them. In short, there’s more than a little Jackson Pollock in Rubens (or possibly vice versa, considering their dates.)

The second copy is after “Pregnant Girl” by Lucian Freud, a somewhat more contemporary effort (1960-1). Again, I had been very struck by the plasticity of Freud’s modeling, and surprised myself by reaching for a colored pencil to make a copy (remember about my conscious mind not having a clue. Oh, heck, just assume I never have a clue.)

What I discovered is that Freud’s modeling is a sort of jigsaw-puzzle affair, in which rather than blending his various color-tones into each other, he uses them to make quite distinct shapes on the canvas…think of picking up a brush loaded with a yellowish skin tone and drawing a triangle, then using a brush with a grayish tone to create a long, narrow patch, then mixing some pinkish paint to create a lozenge-shaped area, etc. It’s very much drawing and painting simultaneously. By some carefully management he can thus exaggerate the billowing and sagging of the flesh as it passes over fat, bone and muscle without losing the overall shape of the figure he’s painting.

Anyway, all of this is a lot clearer (at least to your clueless conscious mind) after you make one of these copies than before. And, of course, that’s why art students in ages past often spent years making such copies—they were working out the logic of various effects, not deadening their originality. But don’t get me started on the “once over lightly” aspects of current art education.



posted by Friedrich at June 5, 2003


My older brother (before he gave it up for a major in Russian) was studying art. His teachers used to have the students create copies of master paintings in various styles and states of completion. It was fascinating watching him, and it did not seem like "copying". The idea was to teach composition, technique, color, whatever it was that made the master-piece great. It seems like a very pragmatic approach. Why not let the greatest teach you directly?

By the way, thanks for the picture postings! I love seeing what other people have done, drawing-wise. It gives me ideas for my own efforts, and perspective on the struggles others have had with drawing issues.

Posted by: Felicity on June 5, 2003 11:30 PM

Cool drawings, thanks. Neat in their own right - when and how did you develop your hatching-and-shading skills? Plus I can see the querying mind at work, which is interesting too. I'm a big fan of copying too -- you learn a lot. I, halfway shamefacedly, confess that I've actually done some tracing. Using actual tracing paper, just going over drawings of all kinds -- classics, Mort Drucker (you can learn a lot from Mort Drucker! A great American master, IMHO). A pleasantly activity in its own mindless right (put on some headphone and listen to music and trace for a half hour or so). Plus you really do learn a lot. Not nearly as much as via copying, I'm sure, but then it doesn't take nearly the energy or concentration -- I can do it at the end of a tiring day, in a vegging-out-in-front-of-the-boob-tube way. Pick up little tips and tricks as well. For some reason mouths-in-3/4-view always stumped me. But I've begun to be able to fake my way by a little, thanks to having traced a bunch of them. Tracing aint' art, but I find it a halfway decent way to kill time, learn to appreciate some art, and pick up a few tricks as well....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 6, 2003 10:43 AM

Don't knock tracing. I believe both Degas and Ingres were big tracers; Ingres in particular was outspoken that you needed to educate your hand and mind by repeating the gestures of the great artists of the past. And it's not exactly as if either of these guys couldn't draw from life!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 6, 2003 12:00 PM

Hi Friedrich,
I agree with you about copying. I have learned a lot that way too. A few days ago I tried using Microsoft Paint as the drawing tool on a copy of an Hiroshige scene. [I posted on my current blog] and the thing that is constantly happening is: how did he do this in woodcuts, and then all the other details like the perspective viewpoint.

I like your copies by the way.

Posted by: Alan McCallum on June 6, 2003 04:37 PM

Mr. McCallum:

Thanks for your kind words. Your own copy is quite entertaining. I also like the way you posted previous versions of the same work. My hat is off to you, sir.

I like the rest of your 'blog, too.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 6, 2003 05:54 PM

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