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Drawing in the gallery

As a sideline to my normal practice — whatever that is — I make drawings of paintings while stood in front of them. It slows me down and allows me to focus on a work, or a detail, for much longer than I would if were just walking through the space. Taking photographs and buying postcards doesn’t have the same effect. I do those things too, of course, but making a drawing is intimate and special.
This blogpost is an attempt to pass on some of what I’ve learned about drawing in a gallery. It’s not the only way to go about it, and it isn’t for everyone, but I hope that after reading it you feel that it might be something you want to try.
Why draw in the gallery?
Drawing directly from works of art is an excellent way of developing your technical ability while being held to account by another work. When I spend time with a work it usually results in me gaining a deeper understanding of how that work is constructed. Composition is a complex subject — and much of it can be intuitive — but by copying a work, more is noticed. I recently made a quick drawing of a Morandi at Tate Modern and was captivated by the way he showed the light that fell in between objects. These small areas are as important as the objects that form the putative subject matter. By drawing the work I understand a little bit more about the way Morandi went about making his pieces. I don’t think that this is I something could have learned in theory; it took the act of drawing to reveal it.

Morandi on Tate website: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/morandi-still-life-n05782

Why not draw from images in books or on the internet?
It’s a good question and while there are many reasons why working from the actual piece is preferable to working from a reproduction, two will have to suffice here: scale and selection. Most works are larger than any printed version or any computer screen. When you’re with a work you can move back and forth to see more detail which can alter the way you draw. Looking becomes active, not passive. The second reason — selection — is more subtle. When walking around a large gallery something will probably catch your eye. It might not be the ‘signature’ piece or anything obvious. Dora Carrington’s Farm at Watendlath (in Tate Britain) stopped me in my tracks and I felt compelled to make a quick drawing. Although galleries are curated there is, I think, a greater chance for a discovery that has resonance than when leafing through a book looking at ‘great’ works.

Carrington on Tate website: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/carrington-farm-at-watendlath-t04945

What to draw?
Though I wouldn’t stop anyone drawing anything, some works of art are easier to draw than others. Well, not easy exactly, but they lend themselves to drawn reiteration moor readily. Making a careful transcription of a Jackson Pollock kind of misses the point, but trying your best to capture the variation in tone on a figure in Caravaggio is worth the effort. When I do this, I tend to gravitate towards figurative work, but exploring the rhythms of an Arshile Gorky would be interesting.
In most galleries it’s usually easy to find some quiet corner or an unregarded picture to focus on. Don’t draw anything too big or detailed as it will overwhelm you. Pick a bit of a painting that intrigues you and deal with that. It might be a single figure, or a face, or some other part that’s easily isolated. If you do tackle a more complex piece, try concentrating on the rhythms and plot them out without getting sucked in to the detail. At the Picasso 1932 show I made a drawing of one of the large paintings and, in doing so, spotted that it contained an ‘extra’ profile, that echoed another in the picture. By drawing it, I slowed down enough to see it.
Picasso on WIKIPEDIA: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nude,_Green_Leaves_and_Bust

Keep it simple and convenient. If you’re out for a whole day you probably won’t want to carry a large pad and a box of equipment. I use either an A4 or A5 clipboard with sheets of a paper I particularly like. I use a soft (4B) propelling pencil and various erasers and stumps. Using a propelling pencil means that I don’t have to worry about stopping to sharpen anything and it creates next to no waste. (Muji even do a model that uses almost all the lead). I keep all of this in a small box that I velcro to the clipboard, which means I’m not trying to hold five things and a pad in my non-drawing hand. It’s probably best to avoid using anything that needs water, though I am fond of the brushes that have a reservoir in the handle and can be used with water soluble coloured pencils. Great for notes about colours but a bit fiddly.
Make it easy to hold the surface on which you’re working: get a pad that presents a simple flat surface — something spiral bound is ideal. Small, bound notebooks can restrict your movement and force you to use only part of the page and forcing them open for protracted periods can give you cramp. Standing for an hour or so in front of picture to draw it can be tiring. It’s tough on the hips and the feet, so don’t make it hard on the hands, too. Sometimes the staff have offered me a seat, but I’ve always declined. Most pictures — especially the smaller ones — would end up distorted if I sat below the height at which they were hung.

First of all, give yourself plenty of time. It helps to be on your own or with someone else who is also drawing. I can easily lose a couple of hours with two or three drawings, and still feel that I’m not spending long enough. The great thing about places like Tate or the National Gallery, or any number of local galleries, is that they are usually free. Go in with the intention of finding something to draw and don’t worry about the rest of the gallery. You wouldn’t go in a library and try to read everything.
You’ll have your own approach to drawing of course, but a few things are worth mentioning:
• Start generally and then work towards any detail. That way you can make progress relatively quickly and people will leave you alone.
• Stick at it. Allow yourself time to explore the image you’re studying.
• Be prepared to edit out stuff. Some effects achieved in paint are impossible to mimic in graphite. You’re probably already editing out the colour so don’t worry about ignoring, for example, complex patterns on material.
• Stop whenever you feel you’ve got what you need or if it’s getting out of control. It’s hard to do major revisions when standing up, so take it steadily and be prepared to move in and out to find out what’s going on. You may find that you have to stand aside if a large group suddenly appear, especially if the subject is small.
By the way, I often find that the first thing I draw is a ‘throwaway’ and it’s only the second or third one that works. I don’t know why, but eyesight and lighting might play a part in it. Don’t pack it in because something doesn’t work. Persevere, as you are likely to improve.
Other People
It can be intimidating to draw in such a public space, especially in amongst a group of art lovers. I feel this too, sometimes. I usually have headphones on so don’t really notice what’s going on around me. Headphones also mean you can legitimately ignore people if you want. In my experience, people tend to only say nice things. Don’t initiate any conversations. Occasionally people will say something or ask if they can take a photograph over my shoulder. If this happens, say ‘yes’ and enjoy it.
I encourage you to take this on as there’s not much risk and lots to gain. Making art can be a slow process and ought to involve a lot of looking. Not seeing, but looking. Standing in front of a painting for an hour is difficult, even if it’s complicated and / or something you love unreservedly. But an hour might not be long enough for you to draw a small part of the same painting.

Posted by author: Bryan
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12 thoughts on “Drawing in the gallery

  • It’s al useful to hear how more experienced artists go about doing this sort of thing. A long time ago I did a morning a week course drawing in the museum at the Ashmolean in Oxford. Blissfully innocent I chose a Claude Lorraine and got lost in it. The more I looked the more things I saw. I’d have benefited from the idea of sketching out the broad outlines and then focusing on a detail.

    • Thanks. It’s not the only way to do and I don’t feel that experienced. I take time over this sort of thing, but don’t get to do it as much as I’d like. One of the big influences is T J Clark’s book ‘The Sight of Death’. He spends months looking hard at two Poussin paintings and reflecting on how they are different in different light conditions and what that might add up to. He doesn’t draw, but writes extensive notes. It’s a tough read at times but I think it might be the best book about art I’ve ever read.

  • Bryan – this is a great post for those of us still still finding our feet. I’m on Drawing Foundations and have tried a couple of time to sketch in galleries but found it very intimidating. All in my head of course!
    You’ve inspired me to try again. Thanks for the practical tips.

    • Good. Head to your local gallery on a Tuesday morning and you’ll probably be on your own. Don’t worry if not everything works. Value the experience of slow looking above all.

  • Great article Bryan! Thanks for this. Timely as i have been drawing in the beauitful main gallery in Lyon today. I drew some Daumier sculpture caricatures.

  • Has all your experience of the copying drawing in the studio made you see this form of drawing in front of original work differently? A while back I went on one of the OCA study visits arranged in the British Museum’s study room, where we given drawings from their collection to work from – brilliant experience.

    • Hi Jennifer. Drawing in the studio helps in one important sense: I’ve developed a style that emerged from close inspection. While I can achieve that in a gallery, it’s difficult takes a very long time. My most successful drawing in that sense was this one – (https://bryaneccleshall.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/img290.jpg) – but I still fiddled with it at home to finish it. The drawings that illustrate the article are rougher than I draw in the studio, like first drafts, but I still learned a lot from making them. I think that all the work we do influences all the other work we do. Everything is in dialogue with everything else all the time. I’m reading Simon Schama’s ‘Power of Art’ at the moment and I can feel that his writing about Turner will impact on me next time I’m in the Clore Gallery.

  • I agree I always draw when visiting an exhibition not aiming to get an exact copy but to get a sense of the work I’m looking at. I also agree that looking at my drawings afterwards despite them being very fragmentary do help me to recall the exhibition. Thanks for your drawing tips I tend to use coloured pencil but find it difficult juggling them plus my sketchbook

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