Research point: Masters of detailed drawing ~ Part 2 ~ Albrecht Durer
Find out about two artists who exemplify mastery of detailed drawing and make notes about their work. Choose a modern artist and one working in the nineteenth century or earlier.
Try as I might to think of an alternative, I knew from the outset that I would choose Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) for this post. A German painter, draughtsman, printmaker and writer, he was strongly influenced by the use of line and hatching in woodcut book illustration. He did his apprenticeship with Michael Wolgemut in Nuremberg, where he developed his skills as a draughtsman. He was also responsible for helping to raise the status of watercolour as an independent medium. Having established himself permanently in Nuremberg in 1495, he concentrated on printmaking (he was the first artist there to take up engraving) and drawing.
He worked to constantly refine his techniques by making highly detailed studies, of nudes and landscapes and natural subjects. As the woodcut became an art form in its own right, separate from its use in book illustration, Durer’s reputation grew.
At the start of the 16th century, Durer turned his focus to painting, placing particular emphasis on portraiture. At this time, he made in-depth studies of human proportions, striving to find the ideal via means of minute observation and precise measurements.
Alongside this, Durer continued his graphic work. One example, The Hours of Emperor Maximilian I, to which Durer made a significant contribution, has been described as ‘one of the most precious and beautiful works in the entire history of book illustration’ (Oxford Art Online, 2013).
Durer continued to study Classical form and perspective, the fruits of which were evident in his work (e.g. Knight, Death and the Devil, and Melencolia I). His etchings show his focus on ‘linear expressivity and depth of tonal contrast’. He maintained that ‘even the smallest wrinkles and veins must not be ignored’ (Oxford Art Online, 2013).
‘The importance of his drawings, of which nearly a thousand have survived, is unparalleled. He used pen and ink, brush and wash, metalpoint, chalk and charcoal and drew not only on white paper but also on Venetian blue paper and on paper he prepared himself with a wash or coated ground for the demanding medium of silverpoint. He was the first artist to recognize and exploit the potential of the autonomous watercolour and the first printmaker to be equally active in the technique of woodcut and engraving’ (Oxford Art Online, 2013).
His choice of media was largely dictated by his subject matter (e.g. secular subjects were usually depicted in engraving, whilst devotional ones were often worked in woodcut). Much of his painting was done in oil and tempera on a chalk ground, on either panel or canvas.
Durer’s ever-increasing confidence was clear to see in his Self-Portrait of 1500. Staring out at the viewer, facing them directly, he depicted himself in an almost Christ-like pose. Such assurance was hardly misplaced, given his huge popularity. Yet it went further than that. Durer’s self-belief seems to have taken root early on in his career.
In the watercolour study of 1502, A Young Hare, Durer signed and dated the work, suggesting that ‘he regarded it as rather more than a study. He was one of the first Renaissance artists to state explicitly that a painter’s slighter works might be just as prized as his more ambitious creations’ (Dixon, 2004). A salutary lesson in not overlooking the worth of sketches and studies, perhaps.
Durer’s emphasis on detail is evident throughout almost all his work. In Great Piece of Turf, 1503, Durer introduced levels of detail rarely seen beyond botanical herbals. His subject is ‘rendered in detail with roots, buds, leaves… stripped of glamour and flowers, an unorganized assemblage of wild plants’ (Laurent, 2011). It was this piece of work, in fact, that prompted me to choose John Hurford as my modern ‘master’ of detailed drawing, as I feel there are echoes of Great Piece of Turf in many of his pictures.
Almost a decade later, Durer was applying the same minute observation to his work. In Wing of a Roller, 1512, the bird’s wing is shown in breathtaking detail. ‘The fine detail of the painting makes it possible to see how the shorter feathers overlap the longer ones, how, as they approach the bone, the green feathers become more numerous and downy, and how the brown feathers near the breast hang down in tufts’ (Web Gallery of Art, 2013).
In a series of engravings, 1513-14, Durer’s skill as a draughtsman shines out. In St Jerome, 1514, ‘there is a very wide range of tone in the print. With this Dürer has created the illusion of light, space and texture that is more like a Renaissance painting’ (British Museum, 2013). In both this, and Melencolia I, of the same year, Durer’s exquisite use of hatching and cross-hatching is evident, creating not just fine details but a masterclass in tone. Looking ahead to the next exercise, using hatching to create tone, Durer must be one of the finest artists to use as an example of how it’s done.
British Museum (2013) Albrecht Durer, St Jerome in his Study, a copperplate engraving [Online], Available at http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/a/albrecht_dürer,_st_jerome.aspx (Accessed 12 May 2013).
Dixon, A. G. (2004) A Young Hare by Albrecht Durer [Online], Available at http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/readArticle/193 (Accessed 12 May 2013).
Laurent, A. (2011) Art + Botany: Albrecht Durer’s Great Piece of Turf [Online], Available at http://www.gardendesign.com/art-botany-albrecht-durers-great-piece-of-turf (Accessed 12 May 2013).
Oxford Art Online (2013) Albrecht Durer [Online], Available at http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T024180pg1?q=durer&search=quick&pos=2&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed 12 May 2013).
Web Gallery of Art (2013) Wing of a Roller [Online], Available at http://www.wga.hu/html_m/d/durer/2/16/2/10roller.html (Accessed 12 May 2013).