Modern vs. Historical: The Role and Function of Fine Art Drawing

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Giorgio Vasari, a famous Renaissance artist and painter, was eloquent on the importance of drawing in the field of fine art. Vasari states, “Drawing… is the necessary beginning of everything [in art], and not having it, one has nothing.” Drawings are not only the beginnings of everything in art, though this is an important element of their value; they also facilitate the artist’s creative process by describing what is seen, visualizing what is imagined, and symbolizing ideas and concepts. Although widely used as a means for artists to conceptualize their ideas for a painting, drawing serves a variety of other functions as well. Some of these others functions include: Descriptive drawing, Ornamentation and Illustration, Drawing as social commentary, Drawing as a means to clarify or crystallize an Idea, Drawing as a means of Self-Expression. 

Each artist will use one or all of these functions depending on what they are trying to accomplish. The very function that each drawing takes on can be emphasized by the media that is used to complete it. For, as it is important to remember, drawing is not only done with pencil or graphite, but also completed in media such as conte crayon, pastels, colored pencil, pen and ink and charcoal.

In the days of the Old Masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and da Vinci the medium of choice was Red Chalk. Most of their master paintings began as drawings or “studies” for the final painted artwork. Today, we consider those drawings as legitimate pieces of art in and of their own right, just as much as we do the final painted piece. In the time of the great masters those drawings were considered preliminary drawings and not meant for display. Although drawings have been collected and admired since the sixteenth century, they were thought of as studies that informed, rather than as complete and independent works in themselves. Today, all that has changed, and drawing has become much more than just a means to an end. It has become, for many, an end in itself.

Drawings also fall into the same categories as painting or sculpture and often mirror the qualities and style of the artist who created them. As might be expected, then, drawings range from representational to abstract and everything in between. In the twentieth century the rise of abstract painting and other contemporary movements changed the role of established artistic disciplines. In the modern world of art, drawing has been reinterpreted and incorporated into modern understanding as more than just a way to portray an image accurately or to conceptualize a final work of art. Rather, it has become a means for the artist to express himself or herself.

Even though the role and function of drawing has changed through the years, one thing remains constant. As Vasari mentioned in the quote above, drawing was, is and will continue to be taught as an essential aspect of the artistic process – and is a vital and fundamental element of fine art itself.

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This article was written for ARTmine by Jeffrey Schreier.