In his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the Italian artist and intellectual Giorgio Vasari calls drawing the “parent” of the arts. The word used in the original text, disegno, has a somewhat ambiguous connotation, which has been lost by modern Italian and is hardly conveyed through the English language. Disegno means both the physical act of drawing and the invention of a design, often in preparation for a work of art. Drawings were a key tool for Renaissance artists, who prepared their compositions carefully, testing them over and over in order to achieve the desired effects of pathos, dynamism, and clarity. In this post, I am going to show some of the techniques explored by the artists of the time to render movement and tension in their graphic works.
Michelangelo Buonarroti – Virgin and Child – black and red chalk, wash, pen and brown ink with white heightening – 1522-1525 – Florence, Casa Buonarroti
The Florentine School of painting was renowned across Italy for the finesse of its draughtsmen. Michelangelo, probably the most famous artist of his generation, is definitely one of the best and most influential representatives of the Florentine style. Michelangelo’s drawings, like his paintings and sculptures, evoke a neat sense of monumentality, as he carefully rendered the anatomy of each character through chalk and pen and ink. In a study for the Virgin and Child, now in the Casa Buonarroti collection, Michelangelo modelled the contour of the baby’s belly, smudging the soft black chalk to give volume to the line. In this way, the infant’s body appears to be turning, creating a visual tension which grants the illusion of movement. The dynamic effect is achieved primarily by playing with the textural effects of the material, which Michelangelo masters.
Michelangelo Buonarroti – Male Nude – pen and brown ink – 1503/1504 – Florence, Casa Buonarroti
Another method employed by Michelangelo to convey dynamism is hatching, that is to say, the application of fine parallel or crossing lines used to create effects of shade and texture. In a study for a male figure seen from the rear, probably related to the Battle of Cascina fresco cycle, the artist used varying directions for the lines as well as the hatching’s coverage so as to convey an effect of tension which evokes the torsion and compression of the muscles. The dynamic pose, with the right leg stretched backwards, is further emphasised by the linear traits which Michelangelo inherited from his master Domenico Ghirlandaio, with whom he had collaborated back in 1488 (although, it should be noted, Michelangelo later claimed to have learned nothing from the older painter).
Titian – Horseman – black chalk and charcoal – c. 1538-1539 – Florence, Uffizi Gallery
The Florentine tradition is often associated with an emphasis on linearity and monumentality, while the artists working in Venice were widely known for their colorito, that is to say, their striking colouring technique. In the field of drawing, their attitude was translated into a wide range of techniques aimed at evoking movement through the use of mid-tones and chiaroscuro. Titian applied such peculiar aesthetics to his drawings, which were criticised in Vasari’s normative writings. In his study for a horseman in the lost Battle of Cadore fresco, he used quick oblique lines to define a dark backdrop, against which he placed the character. The dramatic contrast between the light figure of the horse and the jotting lines in the background emphasises the profile of the animal emerging from the front of the sheet. Unlike Michelangelo, Titian drew quickly and preferred the smudgy textural qualities of black chalk and charcoal to the linearity of pen and metalpoint.
Leonardo da Vinci – Neptune (Quos Ego) – black chalk – 1504-1505 – Windsor, Royal Collection
The given examples reveal how Renaissance artists adapted their style to the specific properties of the materials, from the delicate linearity of pen and ink to the atmospheric effects of chalk. Depending on their preferences and desired effects, the results could be wildly different, as evident when comparing the chalk drawings by Titian with works made in the same material by a Florentine artist, such as Leonardo in his famous Neptune. The handling of movement and dynamism is a revealing feature of an artist’s technique and shows the process of conception behind complex compositions, which carefully designed and tested through preparatory versions on paper. In this regard, disegno is more than a making procedure and encapsulates the intellectual conception behind the finished work of art.