Monday 25 March 2013

Copying a Rubens drawing

My other posts on topics related to technical art history:
  Copying a Rubens painting (materials, techniques)
Inspired by Rubens (Getty Museum page, featuring my work)

(for more photos of my copies and process see this Getty Museum page where I was featured)

Copy after Rubens.  Original HERE

The "Man in Korean Costume" was on display at the Getty at a beautiful exhibition called Looking East: Rubens's Encounter with Asia.  I started copying the drawing to scale directly from the original at the gallery, but soon realised that the details of this piece are so minute they can only be seen with a magnifying glass, so I ended up copying it from the Getty's very helpful zoom view page.  Afterwards I took the drawing back to the gallery, put it side by side with the original, corrected some value relationships, added accents and other details.

1) marking the position of the figure with willow charcoal (mostly removed in step 2)
2) blocking in the main contours and flat areas of shadow with my black chalk substitute
(compressed charcoal) and black chalk
3) finishing the drawing with details, cross-hatching, red chalk and dark accents

The use of willow or vine charcoal for the first few lines of the underdrawing (that was later removed with an eraser made of bread) is historic practice.  The 1634 Third Book of "The Mysteries of Nature and Art" says that when you finish your sketch with ash, sallow or beech charcoal and "you can finde no great fault in it: wipe it over gently with your wing, so that you may perceive the former strokes then with your blacke chalke, or blacke lead plummets; draw it as perfectly, and as curiously as you can" (p104).  The book is downloadable HERE.
A similar procedure is described in Cennini, in Willem Goeree's treatise of 1668, Gerard de Lairesse's treatise of 1701 (in French HERE), and many others (see my Online drawing treatises directory) Rubens, being a genius draughtsman, probably didn't resort to a charcoal underdrawing, but since it's convenient, historic, and doesn't affect the final look, I used it (after writing this blog I heard from Nancy Yocco, a conservator at the Getty who confirmed not noticing traces of charcoal in Rubens drawings she studied).
My real departure from the historic materials in this copy was in the use of a hard compressed charcoal pencil in conjunction with black chalk. 

Types of drawing media used by Rubens and other Baroque artists.
(Elba sanguine from Zecchi and Ural sanguine from Rublevskaya palitra,
French black chalk and Champagne white chalk from Kremer)

Rubens used only black and red chalk in the "Man in Korean Costume".  Examples of his use of more drawing media are the portraits of Isabella Brant and Nicolaas Rubens.  The originals are "aux trois crayons" (black red and white chalk on cream paper) drawings with pen and ink accents. For another one of my aux trois crayons with ink copies see this blog post

Copy after Nicolaas Rubens with a Coral Necklace
Genuine black chalk (French), genuine sanguine (Ural),
Champagne white chalk, pen and bistre ink,
Canson Ingres paper cream.

Copy after the Portrait of Isabella Brant
genuine sanguine (Zecchi), compressed charcoal,
white chalk, pen and ink, Hahnemühle Ingres paper

An aside about genuine black chalk and its modern substitutes:

Black chalk is a luscious medium with a vivid personality and a temper.  With it it's possible to get both a defined line and a fuzzy light hatch-mark depending on the pressure you apply.  It has a cool greyish tone especially important when used in combination with red chalk because it represents all the cool colours while the red chalk takes on the role of all the warm tones.

The material currently available (mined in France and sold by Kremer Pigments) is very expensive with some inclusions that don't produce any marks.  I've read many times that the deposits of good black chalk have all been exhausted, but I'm sure they still exist in various parts of the world and are not explored only because there is no demand.

Currently there is no good substitute of black chalk on the market.  Derwent charcoal pencils (Hard) have the same cool grey tone, but are very soft and powdery, very unlike the genuine material.  General's charcoal  HB is similar to the chalk in hardness but is too scratchy and black.  Pierre Noire by Conte is close, but too waxy, Wolf's Carbon B is too black and chronically inexpressive.
If anyone has a good suggestion for a substitute or a place where I may buy or dig up some real black chalk, please let me know!

©Lala Ragimov

My other posts on topics related to technical art history:
Inspired by Rubens (Getty Museum page, featuring my work)