Tag Archives: Guercino

“By the Movement of the Brush, Establish the Bones”

“Stepped” Values

A 5th century Chinese treatise  on brush & ink drawing offers this cryptic advice: “By the movement of the brush, establish the bones.” What are “the bones” in a drawing? Without bones the body would be a limp sack of skin like the one Michelangelo depicted in his painting of the Last Judgment. Without wood or steel framing, a house would be a shapeless pile of bricks. Bones give structure and form to the visible world. In tonal drawing, the “bones” is the broad tonal patterning that links the various parts into a cohesive whole. The draughtsman seizes on this as a means to create a unified composition.

The Chinese notion of bones relates to the concepts of  Notan in Japanese art, and also to the idea of Macchia in 19th-century Italian painting, all of which are based on rendering light and dark in terms of  simplified tonal patterns. Because the human eye is so sensitive to tonal nuance, learning to simplify values takes practice. Looking at master drawings is a shortcut to developing this ability.

Attributed to Caravaggio, the drawing above adopts a curious strategy. Instead of allowing unlimited tonal gradations, as do the drawings in an earlier post, Caravaggio translates the visible spectrum into three distinct flat tones, or “steps,”and uses this simplified palette as a means to discover the hierarchy of his subject through the placing and massing of the lightest lights, the darkest darks, and everything in-between. The interweaving tone patterns move independently of the lightly sketched outlines of the figures or objects. Certain edges disappear. Parts of forms tilt into and out of the light. Despite the elimination of gradation and detail, the drawing remains surprisingly luminous and evocative, encouraging the viewer to finish it.

For artists whose livelihood depended on the integrity of their compositions, value studies such as these were a means for discovering, simplifying, organizing, and expressing the essential massing of light and dark in their subjects. To appreciate such brevity and abstraction it’s important to understand that this drawing, and the others that follow, are really about structural contrasts and relationships, not things. Using a limited number of tones is a way to sift out the clutter of small details and fractional half-tones to get to the poetry of the big abstract tonal structure – the real bones of the subject.

Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for Students, by Arthur Wesley Dow, 1920.

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Modeling With Line

Modeling is a term that drawing borrows from sculpture to signify any graphic strategy that develops the appearance of the third dimension. Varying line width and weight, exploring tonal contrasts, cast shadows, linear cross-sections, and atmospheric perspective are some of the ways that the draughtsman responds to the visual phenomena of the three-dimensional world. Building on the investigations of line in the early weeks of the semester, we move on to a juncture where the boundary between this most abstract of elements begins to blur into another element – value, or tone – in all of its orchestral richness. The drawings shown here all employ line in ways that express the third dimension through the development of tonality. Unlike media such as charcoal that can be smeared and diffused over the drawing page to create a continuous tone, the insistence of the linear mark in line modeling lends a directional force, a texture, and a certain degree of abstraction and transformation to the drawings. m

Virginia Deane

Staunton, VA artist, Virginia Deane, employs the sharpened pencil in this drawing as if it were a pen & ink drawing, laying down distinct linear hatch marks to define tonal changes across the globular forms of the onions. Countering the dark lines are white hatchings created by the eraser. The composition builds on the repeated circle of the onions while exploring the subtle variation of the central axis of each, as well as scale contrasts between the different forms, the irregularities of their stems, and the play of cast shadows defining the ground plane.

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Michelangelo uses contour hatch-modeling to emphasize the tactile three-dimensional volumes of the figure. The curved lines reveal the surface terrain like the cross-sections of a contour map, or like the toothed tracks left in stone by the sculptor’s chisel. Gradients of dark to light appear in the drawing but they ultimately serve tactile, not optical ends. Transient effects of light and shadow are subordinated to the sense of touch and what it confirms about the volumetric solidity of the form.

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Giacometti’s drawing uses line like the wire armature of his sculptures to build the forms from inside to outside. Within the urgent, fast-moving linear vortices of the drawings, traces of the artist’s astute analysis of positions, angles, and axes of major and minor forms can be seen.

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In this drypoint print, Jake Muirhead, like Giacometti, draws with a vigorous searching line but pushes the contrasts of line weight by varying the pressure of the hand. The direction of the lines mimics the natural striations of the corn leaves, building a powerful three-dimensional expression through contrasts of dark to light.

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In this walnut ink drawing by Vincent Van Gogh large, coarse lines and intervals at the bottom of  the page yield gradually to finer marks and stipples at the top, combining with scale changes, overlaps, and perspectival angles in the fields to set up a simple, yet powerful, spatial movement from foreground to background.

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Both Kathe Kollwitz, above, and Rembrandt, below, use contour hatching in these self-portraits to explore both tactile, planar surfaces and optical effects of directed light and cast shadow. Rembrandt, by observing the loss of tonal contrast in places such as the eyes and the pursed lips, and the reflected light on the neck and jaw, conveys a powerful sense of luminosity.

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Giorgio Morandi develops a rich tonal scale by a methodical layering of regularly spaced straight lines of unchanging width.

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Line, when it is reduced to an outline, mirrors the essential flatness of the drawing page. Where the drawn outline yields and admits the phenomenon of form overlapping form, the modeling of the third dimension begins. Using nothing more than line an extensive spatial vocabulary exists.

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Vincent Van Gogh

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Aubrey Beardsley

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Michelangelo Buonarotti

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Kathe Kollwitz

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William Utermohlen

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Peter Paul Rubens

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Willem Drost

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Willem Van Der Hoed

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Guercino

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