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The Function of Drawings

Updated on April 17, 2013
Villard de Honnecourt Silhouettes
Villard de Honnecourt Silhouettes | Source

Throughout the history of postmedieval art, at least until the 20th century, drawing has been a technically ancillary, although essential, activity. It has served many purposes; but, unlike paintings, drawings were not often made as ends in themselves, as finished works of art. One of drawing's primary functions has been as a means of recording and preserving visual knowledge. Its other main function has been to serve in the preparation of other works of art—painting, sculpture, or architecture.

Drawings for Reference

In medieval art, drawing was the fundamental carrier of visual traditions. Pictorial formulas and iconographic types were recorded in drawings and collected in albums that became part of the working material of the studio. From such a collection of exempla, or simile drawings, the artist could select the appropriate model for the task at hand. Each page of such a model book generally contained several motifs, distributed over the surface so as to maintain the clarity of each. The linework of the drawing was characteristically simple, intent on preserving the basic pattern. The most famous of these model books is the 13th-century album of Villard de Honnecourt.

The tradition of the model book continued through the 18th century, although the character of the drawings changed considerably. Toward the end of the 14th century, studies after nature were incorporated in the albums. These studies—as exemplified by the beautiful drawings of birds and animals by the early Renaissance painter Pisanello—preserve a different kind of visual knowledge, based on the direct observation of nature rather than on earlier prototypes.

In the late 15th century in Italy drawing was further developed as a means of preserving knowledge gained in the new investigation of nature. The study of human anatomy was initiated by artists during this era, and drawing was the indispensable means in this experience. In the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci the eye and hand of the artist combine to decipher intricate organic forms and to record the new knowledge with clarity.


Preparatory Drawings

Simile drawings and studies of nature by their very purpose were intended to be preserved for future reference. Preparatory drawings, however, were in a sense consumed as they served their function and were replaced by the finished work of art they helped create.

In medieval and early Renaissance mural decorations, preparatory drawings were done directly on the wall. The design was sketched first with chalk or charcoal and then fixed, the basic lines retraced with a brush—usually with a red-ocher color called sinopia in Italian. This drawing would eventually disappear beneath the layer of fine plaster to which the colors were applied.

Not until about 1400 did paper become cheap enough to allow the artist to use it freely as a ground for dispensable drawings. In the Middle Ages the artist might work out his first ideas on wax tablets that could be reworked and reused for each new project. As paper became more plentiful, however, it replaced the wax tablet and expensive parchment and vellum as the common drawing ground, and in the course of the 15th century new approaches to drawing and new categories of drawing evolved.

The artist could now experiment in drawing, working out his ideas in many small-scale sketches on paper, slowly developing them until he was satisfied with a final composition. By their very nature, such sketches are tentative, open statements, freely executed. Through their meandering lines the draftsman explores the possibilities of various solutions. In the course of such exploration, new unforeseen ideas are discovered, and sketching thus becomes a seminal experience in artistic creation. Leonardo da Vinci, if not the first artist to utilize this approach, was the first fully to comprehend the great potential and theoretical implications of the process.

In the second half of the 15th century in Italy, drawing on paper also came to replace the preliminary sinopia drawing in the preparation of fresco decorations. Instead of drawing directly onto the wall, the artist now prepared a cartoon (cartone in Italian), a full-size, carefully executed drawing on large pieces of heavy paper. The entire composition was thus elaborated in drawing and then transferred to the wall.

In the procedure evolved during the Renaissance, between the first rough sketches and the finished cartoon lay a series of intermediary studies of the composition as a whole and of the various details—in particular, studies of the human figure, drawings made from a living model or from sculpture. Exercises in drawing the human form became, in the 16th century, the fundamental educational experience of the young artist, and even today life drawing is a standard feature of most art school curriculums.

Another category of drawing related to the preparation of painting is the modello, or presentation drawing—a finished small-scale design intended to give the patron some idea of the final composition. These drawings vary in technique; often they are chiaroscuro designs, but they might also be executed in chalk or pen and ink.

It is impossible to distinguish absolutely between drawings with a specifically preparatory function and those done apparently with no immediate end in view. Casual sketches after nature, for example, may inspire more complex pictorial ideas and thus participate in the preparatory process. Furthermore, an artist's stock of drawings serves as a record of his experiences, as a source of new ideas, and in this way even the most random notation might eventually become as functional as a medieval simile drawing.


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    • whyjoker profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Thank you, RTalloni. Glad you enjoy it.

    • RTalloni profile image


      5 years ago from the short journey

      I enjoyed reading this look at some history on the function of drawings. It has prompted me to consider how foolish it would be to let technology remove pencil and paper from our hands as we embrace its benefits.


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