What is drawing?

During October half term we had a brilliant Insights into Art History workshop all about drawing. Throughout the day we considered the following questions:

  • What is drawing, and how do we define it?
  • In what ways can art history inform an artist’s practice?
  • How do contemporary artists use drawing today?

We started the day with Dr Ketty Gottardo (Martin Halusa Curator of Drawings), investigating the exploratory nature of drawing. Ketty gave us a brilliant tour of The Courtauld Gallery’s Drawing Together exhibition, which presents unexpected pairings of drawings from The Courtauld Gallery’s drawings collection alongside works by living artists.

This included an incredible drawing by artist Jenny Saville, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford:

Jenny Saville, Study of Arms II (after the Titian drawing), 2015, Charcoal and pastel on tinted ground (acrylic) on watercolor paper, 90 × 70 cm, © Jenny Saville. Collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Photo by Prudence Cuming

You can find out more about Jenny Saville’s drawing here.

By displaying the works of old masters alongside contemporary works, the curators encouraged us to compare artists’ approaches to drawing across several centuries.

It was fascinating to see so many formal similarities, as well as contrasts. For example, Hans Hartung’s improvised abstract drawing echoes the dynamic marks found two centuries earlier in George Romney’s private sketchbook!

George Romney (1734 – 1802), Group of Figures (Page of a sketchbook), 1790, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Hans Hartung (1904-1989), Composition in black and yellow, 1958, Wax crayon on paper, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

After our introduction to the Drawings Gallery we visited the Courtauld’s Prints and Drawings Study Room with Dr Rosamund Garrett (Bridget Riley Art Foundation Curatorial Assistant) and Helen Higgins (Oak Foundation Young People’s Programme Coordinator).

We were encouraged to closely examine a selection of drawings laid out for us by Dr Rachel Sloan (Assistant Curator of Works on Paper), and spent time drawing from them.

It was a really intimate encounter which helped us to analyse and understand how the drawings had been constructed. It felt like a rare glimpse into the mind of the artists!

Before lunch we also had a behind-the-scenes tour of the Courtauld Gallery’s paper conservation studio with Kate Edmondson (Conservator of Works on Paper). Kate introduced us to the processes involved in examining, cleaning, conserving and storing works on paper.

Kate showed us how conservators shine light through the paper (this is called ‘transmitted’ light) and across the surface of the paper (known as ‘raking’ light) to investigate the condition of the paper before carrying out any kind of treatment.

We examined naturally occurring drawing materials like red chalk and graphite under the microscope, and handled samples of Japanese paper, a fibrous looking tissue used for delicate repairs.

Did you know… that all the repairs a conservator makes have to be reversible and removable? This is so that future conservators are able to see what changes have been made and use the latest conservation techniques.

It was fascinating learning about the role of a paper conservator; how art and science collide – and – that you don’t necessarily have to take A- level Chemistry to train as a paper conservator!

In the afternoon we had a chance to put art history into practice through a drawing workshop delivered by artist Helen Higgins.

We responded to several works we had studied in the morning, using a variety of media and techniques (and taking turns to model for the group!). Can you guess which drawings we were looking at?

A huge thank you to Ketty, Rachel, Rosamund and Kate for introducing us to what happens behind-the-scenes at The Courtauld Gallery. It was a brilliant day!

Booking is now open for our next Insights into Art History workshops – we look forward to seeing you there!

Exploring Portraiture and Identity!

On Wednesday 25th October 2017, the Courtauld welcomed a group of young people, from state schools and colleges across London, to take part in an Insights into Art History workshop focusing on portraits by the artist Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943). The Insights into Art History day tied in with the current exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys.

Art historian Dr Julian Freeman gave the students an introduction to Chaïm Soutine, a Russian migrant working in Paris during the early twentieth century. During the 1920s and 1930s Soutine produced striking portraits of people working in restaurants and hotels around the French capital.

In the Courtauld Gallery, we looked at portraits from the permanent collection. A painting that caught our attention was Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. The group commented on the barmaid’s direct and powerful stance, unusual at the time of painting in 1882. By discussing composition and brushwork we explored how Manet’s artistic decisions have the power to alter how we perceive the barmaid. We also discussed Vincent Van Gogh’s expressive use of colour in his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear of 1889.

Upstairs in the exhibition, we sketched the waiters, cooks and bellboys who feature in Soutine’s vibrant paintings. We were particularly drawn to the subject’s crumpled uniforms, because of the vivid tonalities of the red, blue and white brushstrokes.

Soutine, Chaim, Cook of Cagnes, c.1924, Kunstmuseum Bern

In a similar way to Manet, Soutine painted his subjects with powerful stances and vulnerable facial expressions. We learnt that Soutine would rework his paintings many times, repainting the same person until he was completely happy with how they were represented. You can find out more about Soutine in our new Artist and Sitter learning resource.

Back in the seminar room, students were able to produce portraits from life, like Soutine did. Ian, a security guard at the Courtauld, very kindly agreed to be the subject of the students’ sketches and paintings. Led by the artist and art historian, Matthew Krishanu, we learnt new experimental drawings and painting techniques which the students used in their own contemporary responses to Soutine’s work.

The first exercise involved making quick charcoal sketches of Ian, who sat on a stool in front of a blue and red backdrop. Matthew showed us how to use the side of the charcoal stick to create background shading. Then, by rubbing out small areas to create light, and layering darker lines to create shadow, the portraits of Ian really came to life.

We then introduced colour into our portrait studies by experimenting with layering oil pastel on coloured paper:

For the remaining few hours of the workshop the students produced a portrait of Ian using acrylic paint on canvas board. A light wash of one colour was used as the grounding for the paintings. After allowing time for drying, layers of acrylic paint in an array of colours were applied to the canvas.

We were also shown how to scratch paint away from the surface, and how to use different brushes for a ‘scumbling’ textured effect.

All of the portraits produced brilliantly captured Ian’s character through composition and brushwork. By exploring Soutine’s portraits and his painterly techniques, the students were able to look closely at the sitter to create their own artworks filled with energy and attention to detail.

Soutine, Chaim, Butcher Boy  c.1919-1920, private collection, Image courtesy Simon Capstick-Dale Fine Art NYC

Thank you to Matthew, Julian and Ian for such a fantastic workshop!

Our next Insights into Art History workshop Edgar Degas: Capturing Movement takes place on Saturday 18th November.

Hannah Dixon