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!