Drawing School Week 1: The National Gallery

First week on HRH’s postgraduate diploma and happily I seem to be drawing or illustrating  every day in one way or another. There’s a mound of life drawing to sort (too big to scan!) so let’s start with some inspiration from artists gone by. I must confess I was a little skeptical as to how much I’d like drawing from flat paintings, copying someone else’s work didn’t appeal. I couldn’t have been more wrong and the process (accompanied by some great guiding round the gallery) has both reawakened the slightly-rusty art historian in me, brought me very close to some wonderful images, but invaluably got me questioning my attitude to composition. Having previously been trained to take apart images in an academic way I now find myself  reading them as an artist, not the critic, and inspired to plan and develop my own work, who knows where it will go… Normally I plough straight into a drawing and don’t plan, but I owe it to myself and my subjects to be more considerate in telling their story. It’s also a blissful experience to sit before a painting for at least an hour and get to know it so well, quickly becoming immune to the crowds of visitors that drift past and nose over my shoulder.

I started with Joachim Beuckelaer’s ‘Fire’ (1570), one of a series of the four seasons, simply because it was packed with things to draw, especially the hanging game birds I’m rather taken with. And hour and a half later and I was overwhelmed with how complicated and well-planned the painting was, every element and character bouncing off another, the interior perspective contorted to capture the wide spread of the foreground and not one but two scenes behind. I love the things, it feels very much like my own compulsive need to draw and collect every detail and object that populate life.

Next came Giovanni Battista Moroni’s Portrait of a Man or ‘The Tailor’ (c.1570) as it is known. I chose him because he was simply very handsome and I liked how we’ve caught him in action. He seems confident in his work, and its as if we’ve just disturbed him, so he’s raising his head to say ‘yes? what can I do for you?’ The pride in his craft is echoed by his own well-made jacket; it reminded me of hours spent making clothes for myself and a men’s waistcoat as a present a while back. Fiddly and complicated but ultimately enormously satisfying to have made real things.

Lastly, a late night session and Jacopo Bassano’s ‘The Good Samaritan’ (1562). These two were a real challenge to draw, so closely bound were the figures and so caught in an awkward movement: the injured traveller’s full weight pressed against the Samaritan who struggles to lift him. Oddly, the mule is barely visible and darkly merges into the rock, exaggerating the pale limpness of the traveller. I had been feeling a bit numb after too much life drawing in studio, this had me thinking about how simply changing an angle (for example, the slant of the traveller’s shoulders, the tricky direction of the Samaritan’s elbow) and bringing two figures together into a narrative created so much dynamism.

The Four Elements: Fire

1570, Joachim Beuckelaer