ANCIENT SCRIBBLERS


“WAVE ACTION” Handmade paper by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Drawing is a primal urge. Caveman depicted what he saw by drawing on rock walls. Children, from the earliest years, draw on anything made of paper, but drawing only became a standard art form when paper became available. At the beginning, paper was of poor quality and expensive, and parchment was too difficult to erase. You couldn’t dash off a quick sketch and it had too low a standard to use for serious art. But by the the 15th century, paper quality had improved to the point of opening the possibility of the sketch.

Renaissance artists sketched out their work before they drew, painted or sculpted it. This new ability to plan and toy with an idea raised their art to a new level not known before the Middle Ages.

Just as today, artists came with varying degrees of skill. Leonardo da Vinci was legendary for his skills as a draftsman. Michelangelo was equally brilliant, and many art historians consider him to have been the greatest draftsman who ever lived—though most of his drawing was scribbled chaotically on sheets of paper not intended for public view. The story is told of a sketch by Michelangelo that was displayed in the Palazzo de Medici for art students to copy. Since the sheet, like most of Michelangelo’s sheets, had a variety of sketches on it, students started tearing off pieces of it and they became scattered over many places. Those fortunate students who ended up with a remnant, treasured it.

Michelangelo used a great deal of paper–and almost any piece of paper he used contained a great many sketches. Only a few are finished drawings. A stunning drawing of the resurrection of Christ is also marked with a shopping list. Masterful drawings were folded up with notes of his neighbors comings and goings on the other side. Michelangelo may have been the first to jot down ideas for himself. Letter writing is another practice that blossomed with the widespread use of paper.

Leonardo was notorious in his lifetime for his inability to finish projects. Fortunately there was paper to capture his genius. Though he is usually thought of as a painter, only fifteen paintings, some unfinished, have been found, along with two damaged murals. He also attempted some sculpture, though he never finished one piece. But he left behind thirty bound notebooks. Unlike Michelangelo, he did want people to see this work on paper, including the notes he made in his mirror-image script a curious response to being left-handed. He left drawings depicting all kinds of inventions, and notes on literature, arts, mythology, anatomy, engineering, and more of all nature.

Leonardo also left behind four thousand sheets of drawings of staggering beauty. He was the first artist to be recognized for his drawings on paper. Leonardo’s work became the standard for art in Renaissance Florence. Studying art now meant working on paper, learning to draw. Leonardo had learned art that way himself, in the workshop taught by Andrea del Verrocchio. Artists have been trained on paper ever since.

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