The History of Drawing

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Introduction and Overview 

When we speak of drawing as an art form, we are referring mainly to an artist's use of line to make a picture. However, the definition of drawing can be expanded to include the use of color, shading, and other elements in addition to line.

Drawings can be made as finished works of art. But they are also made for other reasons. One of the first main functions of drawing has been as a first step in the preparation of a work of art in another medium. These mediums include painting, sculpture, or architecture. The study of drawing has also served as the basic form of training for work in all of the arts.

The history of drawing is as old as the history of humankind. People drew pictures even before they learned how to write. Like other art forms, drawing has changed and developed through history. Each new style grew out of the style that came before it. This evolution of drawing styles closely parallels the development of painting. As drawing styles changed, so did drawing materials.

Early History

The earliest known drawings date from 30,000 to 10,000 B.C.. They were found on the walls of caves in France and Spain. Other examples of early drawing are designs that were scratched, carved, or painted on the surfaces of primitive tools.

Ancient Egyptians (beginning about 3000 B.C.) decorated the walls of their temples and tombs with scenes of daily life. These drawings had a flat, linear style. Texts written on papyrus (an early form of paper) were illustrated with similar designs in pen and ink.

Nearly all that survives to show the drawing and painting skills of the ancient Greeks are their decorated pottery vases. These great works of art show the Greeks' ability to draw graceful figures and decorative lines.

The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, from about the 400's to the 1400's, art was produced mainly to glorify God and to teach religion. Painting and drawing merged in the illustration of Bibles and prayer books produced by monks. These beautifully decorated manuscripts were hand-lettered on vellum (calfskin), or later, on paper. Those made for royalty contained miniature paintings ornamented with gold. Those made for less wealthy persons were decorated with pen-and-ink drawings. The flat, linear forms often resembled the ornamental patterns made by metalworkers.

Drawings were used in the preparatory stages of a work of art during the Middle Ages, but few survive. Paper was not made in Europe until the 1100's, and at first it was expensive and difficult to obtain. Artists sometimes drew on prepared animal skins such as parchment or vellum. But these were also expensive. For centuries, artists made their preparatory drawings on tablets made of slate, wood, or wax. These tablets were thrown away or reused. Some painters made their preparatory drawings directly on the panel or wall that was to be painted. These were covered in the final stage of painting.

Drawings had another important function during the Middle Ages. They helped artists keep a record of images they frequently used. Pen-and-ink drawings of the human figure, costumes, plants and animals, and many other forms were collected in model books. Artists then copied the drawings instead of working directly from live models or from nature.

The Renaissance

Modern drawing in Europe began in the 1400's in Italy, during the period known as the Renaissance. A special love of drawing was born at this time. The production of drawings also increased steadily. This was because paper had become easier to obtain and because of the new importance attached to drawing.

Drawing came to be considered the foundation for work in all the arts. Art students first trained in drawing before going on to painting, sculpture, or architecture. Drawing was used as a tool for the study of nature, which was becoming increasingly important. Artists carefully studied the physical structure of the human body for the first time and began to draw from nude models. The portrayal of the human figure became increasingly realistic.

The need for preparatory drawings also grew during the Renaissance. In Italy, many large-scale paintings were produced to decorate the interiors of churches, palaces, and public buildings. Paintings of this size required extensive preparation. Drawings were an important step in creating the finished work. The artist often made a very detailed working drawing before beginning to paint.

Renaissance artists continued to use pen and ink for drawing. But they turned increasingly to softer materials, such as black and red chalks and charcoal, to make larger drawings and to achieve a greater variety of effects. Shading was introduced to suggest solids and textures. Among the most celebrated draftsmen (masters of drawing) of this period are Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.

The Renaissance in Northern Europe

Artists living in Northern Europe (Germany, France, the Netherlands) in the 1500's gradually absorbed some of the ideas and styles that were first developed in Italy. Albrecht Dürer, the great draftsman and printmaker of Germany, was one of the first to travel to Italy. He inspired others to make the same journey. Yet the Northern artistic tradition remained different from the Italian. The Italians produced many working studies to prepare their paintings. The Northerners made many more finished drawings as works of art for sale. Portraits and landscape drawings were especially popular. Northern artists also portrayed their subjects with greater interest in realism. Dürer's precise studies of people, animals, landscapes, and plants, especially those rendered in watercolor and in chalk, are outstanding examples. So are the portrait drawings of Hans Holbein the Younger of Switzerland. Holbein's black chalk drawings of members of the English Court are masterful in their simple realism.

The 1600's and 1700's

The precision and control of Renaissance drawings were replaced in the Baroque period by livelier forms and by bolder use of materials. Chalk and pen lines became freer and more flowing. Washes of ink and watercolor were also used. The drawings of Peter Paul Rubens of Flanders, who was inspired by the Italian painters, are good examples of art in the 1600's. His larger-than-life figures seem to burst through the surface of the picture.

The Netherlands had its greatest period of artistic flowering in the 1600's. Rembrandt van Rijn was the most famous painter and printmaker of Amsterdam. He was also one of the world's greatest draftsmen. He was able to convey form, movement, and emotion with just a few simple pen lines. Dutch artists made a specialty of landscape painting. They often went into the countryside with sketchbook in hand and produced finished drawings or studies for paintings to be completed in the studio.

The rococo period of the 1700's was dominated by French taste and culture. Decorative lines and cheerful subjects are characteristic of the work of Jean-Antoine Watteau and François Boucher. Both artists often drew with red, black, and white chalks. Sometimes they combined all three.

The 1800's and 1900's

Many different styles developed side by side during the 1800's. Pencils were first manufactured early in the century. They became the preferred drawing tools of many artists. The French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres produced highly finished portrait drawings in this medium. Francisco Goya of Spain is known for his expressive drawings rendered with brush and black and gray wash. Late in the century Edgar Degas led the realist movement in France. He experimented with various drawing techniques (oil on paper, pastel, and crayon, for example) with very original results. Everyday scenes, ballet dancers, and horse races were among his favorite subjects.

The tradition of academic training founded on drawing had dominated European art since the Renaissance. In the last quarter of the 1800's, artists began to question the merits of this training. The change began with the impressionists. They painted directly on the canvas without using preparatory drawings.

Since the beginning of the 1900's, art has been liberated from past traditions. This means that the definition of drawing has also been expanded. It can be almost anything an artist wishes it to be. All modern western art movements are represented in the drawing medium. These include cubism ( Pablo Picasso), abstract expressionism ( Jackson Pollock), fauvism ( Henri Matisse), and postmodernism (Robert Rauschenberg). Artists continue to express themselves through drawing, just as our ancestors felt the impulse to draw on their cave walls so many years ago.

Helen B. Mules
Associate Curator of Drawings
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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