“Draw something every day, no matter how little”- (Cennino Cennini)
Old master drawings are works of art created on paper, parchment, and silk from the early Renaissance until about the time of JMW Turner, that is, the first half of the nineteenth century. Drawings on paper in China and Japan, and going back much earlier, to before the fourth century, are also prized as Old Master drawings. Works of these schools, because of their style and the materials used, are known as brush drawings. The tools of choice of European artists were pen, brush or pencils, silverpoint, watercolour, sepia, bistre, charcoal and sanguine.
Drawings, for the artist in the High Renaissance were the equivalent of architect’s blueprints and represented a big investment in time and research. This included figure drawing from live models for use in classical and Old Testament themes. (For the more gruesome subjects, a ready supply of bodies was provided by permanent little local wars and the expeditious manner with which the justice system dispatched the condemned). The artist’s studio needed a library of drawings representing numerous saints, each with their precise iconographic symbols and correct garments and colours.
Preparatory drawings for a fresco painting often in life-size formats, known as cartoons, required large quantities of paper. Paper was made by hand, sheet-by-sheet, and extremely expensive; the artist could, for this reason, charge the client for the drawings on top of his fee for the final painting. These valuable studio drawings were passed down from one painter to another for generations. Pietro Perugino, the fifteenth-century Umbrian painter and Raphael’s master, in the course of his professional life recycled his older drawings to the point that many of his later painting are rather tedious.
Traditionally, ancient Chinese society considered the art of drawing a valuable attribute of educated scholars. Landscape painting as a subject in its own right already existed in the earliest Chinese art. His subjects, reflecting ideas found in poetry, were the transitional and ephemeral nature of life, the passing of time and changes in the seasons. Often a nomadic artist, the painter tried to capture the ephemeral nature and atmosphere of the landscape he saw before him.
Chinese brush drawing applied ink in swift brushstrokes to absorbent, what we today call, rice paper. Beginning with light thin transparent washes, gradually moving to the deepest of carbon-black tints for the finale; the technique allowed no reworking or second thoughts. The Chinese or the Japanese artist used varying degrees of pressure to create light and shade, alternatively drawing the tip of the brush lightly across the paper to create fine lines, flooding other parts of the composition with intense blacks for shadows and, finally, scraping the half dry brush over the paper to suggest shadows and light tones. The latter technique, used in the later Renaissance in European oil painting was referred to as scumbling.
The literary quality of landscape drawings developed slowly in Europe. Pen and ink sketches were conceived as backgrounds to religious and allegorical paintings as in the works of Leonardo da Vinci or Giorgione’s, The Tempest. They finally emerged in the fullness of time as subjects in their own right in the landscapes of Claude Lorrain to culminate in the watercolour and oil masterpieces of Turner.
Old Master drawings are our most direct contact with the artist: the very act of creation. They are one of the most interesting forms of art you can collect although a risky enterprise. Drawings are difficult to authenticate, being often unsigned. There is seldom a Claude Lorrain-type Liber Veritatis  containing a list of an Old Master’s drawings to consult and forgery is easy. What the forger needs is nothing more than paper belonging to the correct period and that is relatively easy to find. Chemical analysis of the type of ink or pigment used in the drawing may reveal anomalies which can raise suspicions. Specialised forensic paper laboratories try to identify the quality, type of paper and watermarks.
Of more practical use is the drawing’s known provenance and previous authentication letters from a scholar respected in the field. A red light is the appearance on the market of a drawing that seems to be made up of fragments of known drawings by a Master. Moreover, a drawing may be a version done by another artist in the studio. This was a way that artists acquired their skills. Chemically, stylistically and materials-wise the drawing will still fit into the right period even if it is not by the ascribed master.
Old Master drawings tend to be relatively long lasting and stable despite being done on such fragile material. Collectors store them for safety in portfolios that they can move easily in times of danger. A specialist paper conservator can successfully return drawings to good condition should they be damaged. Injury is caused, normally, by damp that encourages bacteria to install in the fibres, eat and gradually weaken the paper. The results are unsightly blotches and staining that the conservator will treat chemically. Tears or holes in the old drawing can be successfully mended to render the damage relatively invisible. Drawing do, however, degrade, become brittle and fade seriously when exposed to too intense light for long periods. There is very little one can do in this case, more particularly, if the work of art contains colour, be it pastel, chalks or watercolour. Hang your drawing away from direct light and for short periods only.
Peter Paul Rubens – Triumphal Chariot of Kallo (detail).1638 Oil on oak panel, 105 x 72 cm. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. The panel is composed of three vertical butt-joined planks.
Peter Paul Rubens’ oil sketch, Triumphal Chariot of Kallo, was a project for an allegorical painting but also for a victory chariot in Antwerp’s Ommegang, medieval pageant. It was to commemorate the battle of the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand-lead Spanish army against the Dutch armed forces, commissioned by Antwerp’s city council.
What is most noticeable about Rubens’ technique is how, so late into the Renaissance, he continued to create oil sketches and even large monumental paintings like the Descent from the Cross in Antwerp’s, Our Lady’s cathedral, on wood panels. Most of his important European contemporaries – apart from the Flemings – had largely abandoned timber supports in favour of canvas. On the other hand, he used the typical Baroque manner of preparing preliminary sketches on paper. This favoured sanguine–red and black chalks and charcoal. Rubens frequently sketched on coloured paper in order to highlight parts of the human figure giving them a three-dimensional appearance.
The Antwerp museum has a number of the small panels Rubens used for sketching out the first stages of larger commissioned work. They seem so contemporary to us today because their style resembles that of Wols, a German pre-war expressionist painter with the composition bursting out from the centre to the edges.
The oil-sketched panel, and the Triumphal Chariot of Kallo is a good example, was the next stage following the pen and pencil outline sketches on paper. The panel prepared for working on is inevitably covered with a thin priming of chalk or gypsum mixed with rabbit-skin glue applied with a house-painters brush. Rubens worked in an alfresco style that gave the sketch a freshness that was sometimes lost in its transition to the final painting. Jan Brueghel de Velours, the most active and talented of Rubens’ collaborators left a number of oil sketches of animals done on the same types of small panels. Delightful to behold, there are monkeys, donkeys, dogs and birds in various poses. Jan Brueghel created them as working studies to be used in his finished paintings. Two are in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie. Anton van Dyke, a contemporary of the two other painters used similar oil sketches on board in his working practice.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Crouching Berber Lion (late 1640s, early 50s)13.8×20.4cm. Pen and brush in sepia ink, Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Rembrandt is probably the first Renaissance artist whose sketches strike us as particularly modern, that is, a drawing done for its own sake and beautiful in itself. Historians regard this drawing as having formed part originally of a group that is now in the British Museum. We do not know where Rembrandt saw the lions he drew but there is an old inscription on the back, in Dutch, saying that the artist sketched it from life. His pièce de résistance was probably sketched when lions were imported and stabled in Amsterdam by the Dutch East India Company.
Looked at in the abstract, the drawing could easily have been created by an early Chinese or Japanese artist. Rembrandt uses his reed pen to suggest the lion’s flanks, back and his haunches. With variations of pen line, weight of ink and pressure he renders the contours, the volume and the energy of the massive animal in confident, short, penstrokes. Rembrandt adds to our sense of the lion’s form by adding, washes of sepia, a colour that allows an artist to create the transparent tones you see on the lion’s flanks to the deepest warm blacks in the full mane that frames the mature lion’s head. A Chinese painter of the classical period would have used his ink-laden paintbrush to obtain just such effects.
Jan Van Goyen is an interesting Dutch artist, falling out of fashion shortly after his death in 1656 and resurrected by connoisseurs in the post-war years. His atmospheric paintings of seascapes and Dutch waterways usually rely on, probably more than any other artist, the seriousness with which he created his drawings. Van Goyen’s working practice was to spend the brief northern Europe summer months travelling through the Low Countries, frequently by sea and along rivers and canal ways, it being an efficient method of travel and the only available transport option at the time.  The added bonus was the large quantity of drawings he accumulated of sea, river, and Dutch landscape, viewed from the sea and towns seen from the perspective of the river Rhine. Van Goyen’s travels by water took him from Brussels to Zeeland and Germany. His surviving sketchbooks contain up to eight hundred drawings.
Come the colder months, the artist settled into his studio in Leiden (where he was born in 1596) and, later, The Hague and proceeded to harvest the fruits of his summer labours. He used the sketches as the departure point for more carefully composed and finished drawings that became works of art in themselves. From these completed, signed and dated works he made a decent living. Van Goyen is one of the few painters whose progress through his artistic career can be followed by simply studying his drawings.
He used, naturally, these same sketches and drawing to create the compositions of his oil paintings. These are often painted on horizontal, oak panels, a format he favoured. The technique Van Goyen used was transparent resin-based colours. Oil-resin painting creates an almost watercolour-like effect that over time, though, becomes ever more translucent (and create serious problems for paintings conservators). If you examine his paintings carefully, the pencil drawing design can be seen through the golden-brown colour of the paint above. His paintings, define the life, architecture and landscape of the golden age that was seventeenth-century Holland.
Claude Lorrain was a successful and prosperous French landscape painter of the Roman school. Over the 50 years of his working life, the landscape artist kept a catalogue raisonné, a sketchbook containing pen, bistre, and lead-white watercolour highlighted drawings of every canvas he had ever painted and sold. Claude signed the back of each sketch and meticulously recorded each buyer’s name there. He entitled his seventeenth-century database, Liber Veritatis. In 1957 the British Museum acquired the set of 195 bound drawings.
The Liber Veritatis insured that paintings forgeries done in the artist’s style would not be passed off as original Claude Lorrains. With this sketchbook Claude’s intention was to create very precise and detailed records of the appearance of his completed oil paintings. It is one of the few examples of a renaissance-period painter signing his own drawings. The artist’s freehand landscape sketches, on the other hand, are always much more spontaneous.
J.M.W.Turner was mad about Claude Lorrain. His, Liber Studiorum, publishing project created in 1806 was the result of his admiration of the Liber Veritatis. By the 18th. century Claude’s sketchbook had arrived in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House and was subsequently engraved and published in 1774. Turner was familiar with the original drawings and the successive publication. His Liber Studiorum was a series of landscape sketches in pencil, brush and sepia watercolour; he subsequently published some of these drawings as etchings. The finished drawings were handed over to a commercial printer, Charles Turner, with whom he regularly collaborated, to be engraved as prints for sale to the public. There is a noticeable stylistic difference between the casual brilliance of the artist’s own drawings and etchings and the more commercial mezzotint engravings the printer subsequently published.
Left, Sesshū Tōyō (雪舟 等楊,) 1420-1506, Splashed-ink Landscape (Haboku sansui), signed and dated, 1495. 147.9 x 32.7 cm. Tokyo National Museum. The painting is the bottom one-third section of a hanging scroll, the top being a calligraphic inscription. Sesshū was a Japanese painter and a Zen Buddhist monk who studied in China. He introduced a unique Chinese-style of ink-brush painting into his homeland. Like his Chinese predecessors Sesshū was a peripatetic artist, traveling the length of Japan. During his travels he made brush drawings of the local landscape, much sought after during his lifetime. Chinese and Japanese paintings in the style of Splashed-ink Landscape influenced European surrealist-expressionist art of the 1930s and, subsequently, 1940-50s. New York Abstract Expressionism.
Right, Matthew Moss, Monegasque Landscape, Sepia watercolour, brush, reed and steel pen, on handmade Fontaine de Vaucluse watercolour paper. 40.6 x 30.5 cm Signed and dated lower right. The Zen technique practiced by early Chinese landscape painters required the artist to retain in his memory the scene in front of him in all its detail. The artist, without further reference to the subject, swiftly dashed down an image of the complete landscape using the minimum of brushstrokes. Monegasque Landscape is done in the Chinese manner, using monochrome brown-black sepia watercolours and the brush, adapted to the techniques of European painting and the assumptions one would expect to be held by a painter working in the early 21st. century.
From Raphael, the Florentine Renaissance and through to the neo-classical French artists, Jacque Louis David and Ingres, drawing was acknowledged as the framework upon which you created a painting. The all-important academic concept, the subject matter, had, by the last years of the nineteenth century run into the ground.
The start of the twentieth century and the birth of abstract art, was an age when artists were asking themselves, what is art for? Painters saw the line or drawing, along with colour and shape, as primary building blocks in painting. ‘Take a drawing for a walk’ is a mantra used by the Swiss artist Paul Klee in the interwar years that helped release the surge of creativity that became modern art.
 Travelling by carriage or cart on bad, dangerous roads was costly, labour-intensive, and much slower than water transport.
 The Dresden sketchbook, about 1648, is in the city’s, Staatlichen Kunstammlungen.
An extended version of this article can be found on the Art Monte-Carlo Blogs page.
If you need an appraisal of your old painting, contact Matthew Moss at Free Paintings Evaluation.