The first people to study drawings were artists, who had a professional understanding of the draftsman's materials and the decisions that lay behind their use. When they considered the drawings of other artists, they were interested primarily in the character of a fellow artist's work (or, conversely, the attribution of the drawing, if there was doubt) and in the quality of the sheet. Giorgio Vasari, the architect, painter, historian and theoretician of art, and the first systematic collector of drawings, shared both of these interests.
Soon the passion for drawings spread to gentlemen of means who were not artists. They were called virtuosi, or amateurs. Their primary interest was in amassing collections of the best drawings they could find, and they too focussed on quality and attribution, but as passive enthusiasts, who may or may not have had some experience with chalk, brush, or pen. However, they were served by expert advisors and dealers, who were often artists.
In the nineteenth century public museums proliferated and with them curators, professional scholars who were not necessarily trained in drawing. The study of the history of art began to find a place in universities by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Likewise the professors of the new discipline were rarely artists.
Drawing, as it was practiced before 1800, is no longer a universal part of artists' training, and the complex process of developing works of art through drawings has fallen largely into disuse. The materials used for most drawings before 1800 have virtually disappeared.
Today we rely on experts trained in art history, science, and, to a lesser extent, art to tell us who made a particular drawing, for what purpose, and how. Our curiosity about quality and attribution is as keen as ever, but few of these experts have practical experience with the materials. We must study these materials and techniques as we would learn a dead language.
The lengths to which we must go to gain an intellectual grasp of this basically simple art would seem contrived and perhaps absurd to Vasari, but from our vantage point we need to make this effort. While the study of materials and techniques is obviously vital to a conservator who is about to begin a treatment, it also brings the scholar, the collector, and the museum visitor into direct contact with the creative work of artists of the past.
Drawing is an art form in which its practitioners have attained a considerable expressive range with few materials and tools. About a dozen of those discussed here account for most master drawings. Clearly these simple materials came into such wide use and endured so long, because they were responsive to the artist's will. It was the artist who made them eloquent and who achieved bold gestures or subtle nuances with the addition of a drop of water or a slight twist of the pen.
Giorgio Vasari wrote in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (Second Edition, 1568):
"Because drawing, father of our three arts, architecture, sculpture, and painting, proceeding from the intellect, extracts from many things an universal judgment, like a form or an idea of all the things in nature, who is most specific in her measurements. This applies not only to human beings or animal bodies, but also to plants. Also in buildings and sculptures and paintings it knows the proportion that the whole has with the parts, and which the parts have among themselves and with the whole altogether. And because from this knowledge a certain concept or judgment is born, so that there takes form in the mind that thing which later, expressed with the hands, is called drawing. One can conclude that drawing is none other than a visible expression and declaration of the concept which one has in the spirit and of that which one has imagined in the mind and built in thought."
"...it is necessary for whomever wants to arrange the components [of a picture] well and to make inventions coherent, that he must first put them on paper in several different ways to see how the whole works together. Since thought cannot see or imagine inventions perfectly in itself if it does not open up and show its concept to the physical eyes which help it to make a sound judgment of that concept."
It would then follow that not only the formal characteristics of a drawing, that is, what we call style, but the artist’s choice of materials, is determined by two factors: (1.) the artist’s initial concept, or invention, and (2.) his intention in developing the idea into form through the drawing, that is, its function.
If an artist is making a rapid initial sketch of his first idea, he may choose an easily erased medium like charcoal or chalk.
If he is developing the structure and outline of his image, he may use a precise linear medium like pen and ink.
When he comes to consider the action of light on the surfaces of his forms, he will add washes or white heightening.
A finished version of a composition, either for presentation or for transfer to another medium, like canvas, stone, or bronze, may be composed of a variety of media, perhaps combining transparent or opaque colors for rich, illusionistic effect.
An artist's choice of a drawing medium may be rapid or informal, but it is rarely arbitrary (at least in the case a a good artist) and should always be understood in the context of the draftsman's intentions.
The Western tradition of drawing discussed here emerged in the early Renaissance, at a time when medieval practices began to give way to a method that relied more on ad hoc invention, the observation of nature, and an illusionary imitation of nature. The medieval artist's work began with the model book, a bound collection of mostly finished drawings that represented a stable stock-in-trade, which was handed down from generation to generation within a single workshop. The effort required to break away from this tradition is difficult for us to imagine since we have lived with artistic conventions based on the imitation of the material world for over five hundred years. Western drawings as we know them represent a conscious and willful effort to turn the substance of art from pure design and symbolic imagery to the illusionistic representation of the material world. Vasari emphasizes the importance of this change and his enthusiasm for it in his story about Cimabue discovering the young Giotto drawing sheep in nature.
During the fifteenth century these gave way to freer, rapidly produced sketches of observations and ideas that were developed through a series of sketches into a finished construct, which was recorded in complete form in the artist’s modello. This type of drawing, although conceptually complete, rarely attempted to emulate the materials of the finished work. Until the seventeenth century, autonomous finished drawings were relatively uncommon and consisted mostly of presentation drawings for friends or patrons, rather than surrogate paintings on paper for sale. Most of the surviving early drawings are preparatory in function.
During the nineteenth century artists came to rely less on preparatory drawings, working out their designs on the canvas or in wax. Consequently finished drawings have become predominant in the past century and a half. Even rapid and apparently incomplete sketches are made with the public or the market in mind.
After the Second World War a revolution occurred in the visual arts through which the materials of an artwork and the artists' physical actions used in their application were identified with the concept, or meaning of the work itself. This was no less relevant to drawing than to painting or sculpture. Therefore experimental media have come into increasing use. There is an apparent contradiction between this use of unconventional materials and the economy characteristic of old master drawings, but in fact in the most successful efforts the material has merged with the content. In some cases the artist can still be said to be creating a drawing in the traditional sense, but in others, particularly in finished works, it may be debatable whether they should be called drawings or not. Hence the term "work on paper" has become fashionable in the last twenty-five years.
Vasari, as an artist and an historian, believed in progress. He was certain that the art of his own time was vastly superior to that of the Middle Ages, just as he believed that the drawing-based art of Florence was superior to the coloristic art of Venice. While the material of this guide is broken down into the free structure of a hypertext reference work, an historical undercurrent should be apparent. Nonetheless, it attempts to be as free of Vasari's progressivism as it is of his nineteenth and twentieth century successors' nostalgia for a golden age of figural art. From an historical perspective it is not apparent that the manufactured materials of the nineteenth century and the present day are any better than the handcrafted materials of earlier centuries, even though they are certainly more consistent. Consistency and control was determined by the skill of the assistant who prepared the pigments and the artists who used them. Lack of supply of workable materials in the eighteenth century led to the replacement of natural chalks by fabricated substitutes, just as the plentiful availability of paper in the fifteenth century made the kind of drawing discussed here possible. Victor Hugo's mastery of modern materials didn't enable him to produce better drawings than Rembrandt. Nor have modern materials enabled Jasper Johns to surpass Dürer.
On the other hand, figural preparatory drawing, which began to recede outside of Academies in the eighteenth century, has diminished drastically in importance since the nineteenth century. Modern eyes are more at ease with other methods of rendering, embracing abstract design and photography. If master drawings move us in a unique way, it is because they address us from a past, increasingly distant, phase of human consciousness.
The terms which are treated as basic usage in this manual are terms of convenience which have been adopted by art professionals, above all in museums, in recent years, and they are generally employed with some degree of consistency. However, they are not scientific terms, nor are they the words used by the artists themselves, or literal translations of them. They constitute in fact a practical but somewhat loose system of nomenclature, which makes allowance for the inaccuracies caused by inconsistent methods of examination, varying degrees of expertise, and the practical circumstances under which art professionals work. A full technical examination is often not possible, because of time constraints or limited facilities.
In some cases confusion can result, if we are not aware that the common term we use can refer to several different materials. Black and red chalk, crayon, brown ink, and gouache all commonly refer to more than one material, depending on whether they are natural or fabricated, or on current usage. The individual entries in this guide attempt to clarify these ambiguities.