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The Style of a Drawing

Updated on April 3, 2014

The style of a drawing is the product of several related factors: the particular medium, the function of the drawing, the draftsman's personality, and his general style. Most immediately, the style depends upon the response of the medium to the movements and pressures of the guiding hand; in turn, the hand of the practiced draftsman is aware of the peculiar nature of the medium—its expressive potential and technical limits—and moves accordingly. This reciprocity determines the quality of the individual line as well as the combinations of lines creating the significant patterns of the design.

The lines of a drawing rendered quickly and spontaneously will record the very speed of execution in their flow and direction and attest to the energetic handling of the drawing implement. Conversely, a line drawn slowly and with care will express the deliberation and control behind it. The pace of such a line—the rhythm of its variations and its changes in direction—will reflect the measured character of the draftsman's hand.

Stylistic differences are not purely idiosyncratic, however. The intention of the draftsman and the purpose of his drawing significantly affect style. If a drawing is intended to preserve a maximum of factual information—as in anatomical and nature studies, portrait drawings, and perspective constructions—it will be executed rather carefully; the linework will tend toward a certain preciseness, and tonal gradations will be deliberately controlled. The contours of a drawing intended to convey a different message, a more impressionistic effect, will be more open; patterns of light and shade may be bolder and the execution freer and more suggestive.


In such pictorial effects the paper itself plays an especially important role, contributing the essential element of light. Open, interrupted contours allow the light background surface to flow from solid object to surrounding space. The result is an overall unity that is by implication atmospheric, pervading the entire design.

Closed contours or dense patterns of linear hatching tend to isolate the objects rendered and set them against the background, rather than within it. This concentration on the physical autonomy of form may be considered a sculptural rather than a pictorial mode of drawing.

The particular configuration of lines, the critical determinant of graphic style, may depend very closely on a drawing's preparatory function. Preparatory drawings for engravings or woodcut, for example, are generally executed in pen and ink, since the print depends entirely on clear linear patterns for its effects. The linework of the drawing that is to be transferred to the copperplate or wood block is therefore crisp and regular.

The style of preparatory drawings for paintings will naturally relate to the style of the projected painting as well as to the particular technical procedures to be followed. Drawings leading up to a cartoon are usually highly articulated; since the cartoon itself will be transferred directly to the painting surface, the contours must be precisely delineated. This sense of precision is evident in the preliminary drawings and especially in studies intended to clarify details.

Painters for whom the cartoon is not an essential step in the production of a picture have generally tended to create preparatory drawings that are more open and pictorial, unconcerned with fixing the contours of the design before the actual painting.


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