Drawing is one of the oldest forms of visual art with a long and diverse history. It is widely considered the foundation of all art and the first medium students must master. And while its widespread accessibility means it continues to be a popular pursuit for creatives around the world, drawings are often overshadowed by painting and sculpture.
However, many artists who are famous for their work in color were also exemplary draftspeople. In fact, masters like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rubens made countless preparatory drawings before each painting to study their subjects and develop compositions. Similarly, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres created refined graphite portraits which are some of his most celebrated work today.
LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452 – 1519)
In these notebooks are hundreds of detailed sketches exploring human anatomy, animals, plant life, inventions, and more. They show how Da Vinci used drawings to think critically as well as solve problems.
ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471-1528)
Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer was the first artist to elevate printmaking to a form of fine art. He produced engravings, woodcuts, and etchings based on his meticulously detailed drawings. It was the first time someone attempted to duplicate such realistic illustrations, and its overwhelming success subsequently inspired other artists to make and distribute prints.
MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI (1475 – 1564)
For many, Michelangelo is still the greatest artist of all time. His mastery over different disciplines—painting, sculpture, architecture—is unparalleled. At the core of his creative practice, however, was drawing.
Before each painting and sculpture, the Italian artist created numerous sketches of the human figure. These expressive drawings reveal a deep understanding of anatomy and physiology and provide insight into how Michelangelo approached his elaborate compositions.
REMBRANDT (1606 – 1669)
Celebrated for his successes spanning multiple media and types of subject matter, Rembrandt was called a “colossus of art” by prolific sculptor Auguste Rodin. In his drawing, he was known for his ability to render both landscapes and subjects quickly and confidently.
British artist David Hockney praised Rembrandt’s gestural drawing A child being taught to walk, saying: “I think it’s the greatest drawing ever done… It’s magnificent drawing, magnificent.”
PETER PAUL RUBENS (1577 – 1640)
Known for his voluptuous women, opulent colors, and dynamic compositions, Peter Paul Rubens is considered to be one of the most influential painters of the Baroque period. Before he embarked on a commissioned painting, he created several preliminary studies of his subjects.
These surviving sketches display the Flemish artist’s confident drafting ability. With just a few confident lines, he could convey gestures and emotion.
JEAN-AUGUSTE-DOMINIQUE INGRES (1780 – 1867)
Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was known for his larger-than-life paintings which celebrated traditional painting techniques. And while his work in oil was sometimes scrutinized by contemporary critics for its gothic undertones, his numerous drawings and graphite portraits were highly revered for their precision at capturing a subject’s physical appearance and personality.
EDGAR DEGAS (1834 – 1917)
While most Impressionists found inspiration in picturesque landscapes, French artist Edgar Degas preferred capturing human subjects, especially those in movement. In addition to his many well-known paintings, he also made countless pastel and pencil studies of ballerinas, singers, and bathing women—each of which displays his finesse at rendering the human form in action.
GUSTAV KLIMT (1862 – 1918)
Most associate Gustav Klimt‘s glittering paintings with their golden touches. But the Austrian artist was also a master draftsman who utilized strong lines in his compositions. His striking renderings of the female figure utilize foreshortening and perspective.
HENRI DE TOULOUSE-LAUTREC (1864 – 1901)
In his posters, Toulouse-Lautrec employs masterful use of the line to characterize well-known performers of the time, including Yvette Guilbert, Louise Weber, and Jane Avril. His draftsmanship captured the movement of dance and the energy of Parisian nightlife during the Belle Époque.
Courtesy: Modern Met