Raphael, 'Studies of two Apostles for the Transfiguration', Black chalk with faint white chalk on off-white paper, 499 x 364 mm© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. I recently tried to pick my favourite of the postcards Blu-tack-ed to my wall. Rather than paintings by Van Gogh or the Veronese, whose colours sang out so much from white-painted plaster, I kept coming back to the one drawing up there, Rembrandt’s Interior with Saskia in Bed (c.1640–42).
At first I thought it a strange choice. Surely a drawing would have the odds stacked against it, in its quick execution, lack of colour, and use of mere ink or charcoal? But I concluded it was the other way around: paintings are always at a disadvantage. A drawing retains so much of the artist. Each line expresses their hand and their mind that moved it – as we follow one line to another, we are at one with them in a way seldom matched by oil on canvas.
Looking at a catalogue for the Ashmolean’s new exhibition of their world-class collection of drawings, the pieces of paper appear like a level playing field: from Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo to Rubens, Watteau and Gainsborough, all the artists – in a sense – have the same limited tools. There is no access to rare pigments, studio assistants, or the finance that allows time to be taken. Instead each work is a quick production in pen or chalk, some finished with a brown or grey wash.
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, 'Cain and Abel', Brush and brown wash, 206 x 141 mm/ © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. This allows an enjoyable ease of comparison between different styles. Representations by Raphael, including his remarkable study of two of the apostles for his Transfiguration altarpiece (c.1518–20), have the beautiful sense of proportion and shape for which his paintings are famed. A drawing of two men fighting by Goya – brushed out exactly three centuries later – forsakes beauty for vigour; washes of brown and grey trespass the outlines of the two figures, communicating the movement of their bodies.
In his portrait of an architect (1820), Ingres sketches out costume with fast, light glides of graphite, before more carefully rendering the sitter’s face in detail with darker, shorter marks. Created decades before the advent of the camera, it has something of the photograph about it, the face in sharp focus while the body blurs. And there lies Rembrandt’s Saskia again (1842), in bed during her final illness, the drawing’s exquisite lines, however quickly made, expressive of the artist’s watchful love.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine