Tag Archives: Van Gogh

Covering the Masters

The surest path to developing your own original voice in art is to study the masters. Every great rock band you can think of started out by covering the songs of earlier artists. Great artists throughout history also “covered” earlier precedents on the way to figuring out what they were up to. Why did the Beatles study Chuck Berry and Big Bill Broonzy? Because those older artists were cool; they had the stuff, the sound, the vibe. Why did Michelangelo copy Ghirlandaio? Same reason.

When you look through the catalog of what came before you you will find your own patterns of fascination. Pay attention to these patterns. They reveal who you are as an artist and who you will be. You don’t have to know why you find a particular drawing or painting captivating. The fact that it captures your attention is what matters. It’s a mirror you’re looking at, not somebody else’s drawing. You don’t look in a mirror and ask why. You look to find information.

On the practice of drawing from the masters, Mercedes Matter, teacher and founder of the New York Studio School, said, ” Any young artist without insight into these forms of expression, without a key to understanding the art of other times and places, who is tuned in only to current ideas, is indeed poverty-stricken. However bright, sophisticated, ingenious and successful he may be, he remains, as an artist, naïve.”

In his twenties Edgar Degas spent several years in Italy living with relatives, painting their portraits and assiduously copying older art in the churches and museums. Why did he copy older art? Was he just being the dutiful student, eating his vegetables and taking his vitamins? No. He copied because that art was alive to him. It spoke to his own unique questions, intentions, and needs. History regards Degas as one of the most daring, original, and groundbreaking artists of all time and yet he himself made this confession:

I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament I know nothing.”

Preoccupation with finding an original style is a common curse of young artists. It’s natural to want your work to be your own and not just another iteration of some recognizable genre or established style. But shutting yourself off from art and influence doesn’t make you more original; it just makes your work more predictable and typical. It locks you out of the great ongoing conversation that all great artists, alive or dead, have had with the history of art. It cuts you off from great streams of influence that can help you in your journey to figure out what you’re doing and what you’re trying to say with your art. In the gallery below you will find some wonderful “covers”  of masterworks of drawing and painting made by artists who in turn became great masters themselves. It will pay you to seriously ponder this question: did they become masters in spite of copying, or because of it?


Filed under Artists on Art, Old & Modern Masters, Practice, Sketchbooks

Line Drawings

Line drawing, like writing, can be declamatory or expository; a way of persuading viewers or a means to simply engage with the world beyond the self. The searching, tentative quality of a sketch is more like a soliloquy than a sermon, the artist’s interior dialogue groping toward a mystery. John Berger wrote that for Vincent Van Gogh drawing was  “a way of discovering and demonstrating why he loved so intensely what he was looking at…”

At the beginning of a drawing class we focus on line and all of the various ways it can be played. Working with line is like the visual counterpart of MTV’s “Unplugged” series where musicians leave all their technological wizardry at the door and just play the music. In the absence of recording-studio colors and effects, the integrity of the basic idea is revealed. The ensemble stands or falls in that clarifying light.

A linear drawing builds its riffs from a similarly austere palette, drawing its unique power from elimination, reduction, and distillation of the rich sensory experiences of the eye. Unaided by the seductive romances of tone, color and texture, the play of line in a drawing can inform us about what we are and are not seeing, allowing us to address problems before they’re embedded in complicated visual embroideries.  The relative spatial positioning, directional movements, and scaling of one part to another can be tested and worked out. Like a house under construction, a line drawing is more about the foundation than about the furnishings. The understanding of relational structure, built over time through constant practice, is the foundation of our powers of expression as artists.

On its march toward resolution and clarification of intent a linear drawing leaves in its wake a clamoring of linear hypotheses that can produce a remarkable beauty, as can be seen in many of the drawings below. The ghostly images of abandoned positions, proportions and directions function almost like the sonic qualities of reverberation in music. Tonal drawings have an epic feeling and grandeur about them. Linear drawings, by embracing certain constraints on their means, can achieve a very different kind of poetry, not unlike the sparse syllables, internal rhymes and rhythms of haiku.

Tone speaks directly to the emotions. Line speaks to the mind. Or, rather, it speaks to the emotions through the mind by distilling the idea of the thing. Lacking the mimetic immediacy of tone, which is a closer approximation of the actual way that we perceive the world,  the abstractness of a line drawing can never look like its subject in any literal sense. It can only look like itself, however much it may remind us of things seen. But, what we give up to line’s austerity, we gain back from its unique power of transformation. When we begin to draw, the motif is, as Henry James said of nature, a “blooming buzzing confusion.”  As our lines negotiate and articulate that empty space everything changes – our perceptions, our emotions, even the motif itself. The provisional becomes the inevitable.

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Filed under Contemporary Artists, Old & Modern Masters, Practice, Uncategorized

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 draftsman 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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Reduced to just an outline, the element of line reinforces the essential flatness of the drawing page. When outline yields to and admits the phenomenon of form overlapping form, the modeling of the third dimension begins.  An extensive spatial vocabulary exists using nothing more than this simple element.


Vincent Van Gogh


Aubrey Beardsley


Michelangelo Buonarotti


Kathe Kollwitz


William Utermohlen


Peter Paul Rubens


Willem Drost


Willem Van Der Hoed






Filed under Practice, Theory