Let us first consider what a sketch is not. A sketch is not a finished drawing; a finished drawing is often a work of painstaking effort and an artistic product in-and-of-itself – a drawing is its own thing. A sketch is not a preparatory drawing for a larger work per se; preparatory drawings during the Renaissance, for instance, were works that were made to be used to transfer finished compositions to larger canvases or onto the wet plaster of a fresco.
No. A sketch, simply, is an artist’s first draft, a rough idea, the idle result of his drawing implement(s) and spare paper. They are not finished works of art, but, rather, places where he is thinking on paper. Most every artist of any importance (and most who are not) have kept sketch books – Your Correspondent has been guilty of this, as well. Artists carry sketch books on vacations, on the subway, at the café or restaurant, at the concert or to the market. In short, wherever there is life (or landscape!), the working artist takes his sketchbook, ready to think on paper.
And that’s what an artist’s sketchbook is – thinking on paper. Sketches are not made for the general public, or even for small audiences – they are reference works for the artist as he is working out his ideas, planning out his compositions, or explaining his ideas.
Artists will also add sketches to the darndest things. Much to the horror of restaurateurs everywhere, I am an inveterate tablecloth sketcher. Can’t help it – but I do make sure that I doodle in pencil, so as not to ruin the cloth. I have also added little sketches to the bottom of bills and receipts, and in letters.
Many artists, in fact, have loved to put little drawings in their letters. Here is a typical letter from Van Gogh:
These are not finished drawings, and are just tossed into the text as an illustration.
Look, here, at Thomas Eakins, who sought to illustrate his letter about furnishings he admired with some quick sketches:
What I find most interesting about the sketches of even the greatest artists is that they are not often all that good. And that’s the point – a sketch is simply the artist thinking pictorially, because that’s the way artists think.
That was what came to mind during a recent visit to Rome, where I saw a sonnet Michelangelo wrote to a friend (essentially, a poetic letter), about the experience of painting the Sistine Chapel. (See above.) The sonnet also has a very loose sketch of himself, arms overhead, brush in hand, performing an impossible task of artistic creation. The sonnet reads:
Here like a cat in a Lombardy sewer! Swelter and toil!
With my neck puffed out like a pigeon,
belly hanging like an empty sack,
beard pointing at the ceiling, and my brain
fallen backwards in my head!
Breastbone bulging like a harpy’s
and my face, from drips and droplets,
patterned like a marble pavement.
Ribs are poking in my guts; the only way
to counterweight my shoulders is to stick
my butt out. Don’t know where my feet are -
they’re just dancing by themselves!
In front I’ve sagged and stretched; behind,
my back is tauter than an archer’s bow!
This is not an impressive sketch (and, perhaps, not an impressive sonnet), but it is a perfect example of the artist working out his ideas on paper.
More on sketches tomorrow!