Tag Archives: drawing

Castiglione, Lost Genius – my review of the show

this is my review, published in the A-N

Castiglione, Lost Genius

There was initial confusion about this exhibition, because I had confused Giovanni Castiglione the Baroque painter, with Baldassare Castiglione the Renaissance writer. Therefore, I went to the Queen’s Gallery expecting some kind of exhibition around the life and times of the writer of The Courtier. The reason for this is that Giovanni Castiglione is little known, except to specialists. Happily, however, the exhibition was a real eye-opener, absolutely fascinating and a real treat.

The exhibition largely consists of two particular techniques that Castiglione invented: the monotype and the oil sketch. The monotype, which is widely used today, involves drawing directly onto the plate, and then manipulating it – so the end result has some element of chance in it. The oil sketch is even riskier. Castiglione drew using thin oil paint directly onto untreated paper. This had to be done extremely quickly, so that the oil didn’t over-soak into the paper, thus spoiling it; but it also meant that it was extremely difficult. Unlike oil painting, there is no going back and fixing anything. Unlike watercolor or ink, there is no applying water to diffuse a line. Once you put the oil onto the paper, that’s it. And so it is marvelous when you look at the complex compositions, extremely lively, full of movement and drama that Castiglione produced using this technique.

Castiglione was well known in his time for extremely successful rendering of animals, and there are a number of examples in this exhibition. He had no inhibitions about drawing domestic animals such as cattle and other common creatures; their representations are as dynamic and as faithful as his representation of humans. He shows animals as creatures in their own right, powerful and prominent within the composition. What is interesting about the oil sketches is that it appears that most of them are actually finished works, not sketches for paintings. The most accomplished of these is a series of portraits of Saints, which are highly dramatic and here he has used the oil sketch technique to achieve a powerful chiaroscuro.

Today, discussion of technique is almost entirely absent from discourse around contemporary art. This exhibition makes me wonder why. Why have we given up consciousness and appreciation of technique? Castiglione shows us how technique is fascinating, instructive and is truly the pathway to creativity.

As if to illustrate this point, the exhibition in the next gallery, called Gifted, which consists of many works on paper gifted to the Royal Collection by the artists of the Royal Academy. Gifted certainly shows the length and breadth of the Academy and the academicians, but it also shows that, certainly compared to the time of the Italian Baroque, we have have lost technique. Many of the works are extremely simplistic, both intellectually and in their execution.

And I mean simplistic in a negative sense. Picasso has been quoted as saying “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Let us leave aside the obvious hyperbole, as this is a quote from a master at the top of his game. (Picasso knew exactly how to play his audience and is one of the most consistently successful painters of all time. And he certainly didn’t “paint like a child.”) The problem is that this quote, taken completely out of context, has given a license to the last generation, at least, of artists to completely ignore technique. They don’t even reject technique because they don’t bother with it in the first place. The lack to technique in the works in Gifted is laughable. And they are not childlike – children usually work quite hard at their drawings and paintings.

Perhaps there’s another explanation for the poverty of Gifted; one might wonder if this is perhaps because the academicians in question are secret Republicans. But I doubt it. In the gallery there is a large oil portrait of the Royal Academy at the point of its founding in 1768. What the portrait shows is that the Academy, then as now, is largely made up of artistic nonentities.

I am ending this review with an address directly to artists: keep working on your technique, and pay attention to it; technique is important, technique is fascinating, It will allow you to do things different and probably better than anybody else. Technique will set you free.

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What is drawing? What is good drawing?

I am not really good at drawing. I used to be considered to be good at it, at school and I did well at Art and as a kid I drew a lot. But I stopped.

However, it’s clear that Drawing is one of the first and most deeply embedded human acts. The first time the tiny hand takes some kind of stylus and makes a mark. It happens to everyone, everywhere, across history. We do that.

And we all draw. We call it doodling. At work, while listening to a lecture, on the phone. Even tablets and smartphones have drawing programmes (not very good ones: a Biro and an old receipt is more satisfying to draw with).

notebook doodles

notebook doodles


notebook doodles

If you Google “drawing” the images you get tend to be realistic. Using the pen or pencil to recreate the real, often a person. As well, I’m familiar with the great drawings of the past, just as you are. Raphael’s glorious heads (his drawings much better than his paintings); Da Vinci’s wondrous machines and astonishing anatomy; detailed and intricate botanical drawings, weirdly more fascinating than the actual plants; the sensual monsters of Aubrey Beardsley and the harrowing experiences depicted by Kathe Kollwitz.

But drawing as contemporary art is really a puzzle to me. Scanning and invitation sent to me by a London gallery, I saw a photograph of some weak, faint pencil on paper, totally undistinguishable, accompanied by the following passage (an excerpt):

This most recent series of drawings takes as its starting point, the axonometric grid. Through a process of division and sub-division, [the artist] dismantles the axonometric grid to reveal a series of equally diminishing equilateral triangles. These triangles are employed in a subversive manner by [the artist] to shift the grid away from its original intention – understanding three-dimensional space through a linear form of projection – and instead layers and overlaps the grid to reveal dimensional arrangements constructed from perceived tonal shifts brought about by the relative proximity of one shape to another.”

I am sorry, but I am not going to cross town for this. I am not interested in “dismantling the axonometric grid.” THAT is what I used to do every day in Math class confronted by the gridded notebook, I’d skip to the back pages and demolish the grid by drawing over it, forcing the lines into curves and often sticking a pair of confrontational eyes on top of the whole.

This is a kind of curator’s-wet-dream art, boring and intellectual*. Unengaging. Yes, of course I’d rather go play on my smart phone.

* And I am what would pass in most circles for an intellectual.

This what I think of as a good drawing:

drawing by Glenn Ibbitson

drawing by Glenn Ibbitson

and this:

bedtime drawing by Nazir Tanbouli

bedtime drawing by Nazir Tanbouli

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“Private Nightmares” an exhibition by Nazir Tanbouli

nazir tanbouli

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