"In art, when you are creative and inventive, you can work with what you have and arrive at something new."
Edgar Degas, Bowing Dancer, (1880-1885)
Edgar Degas was an artistic genius. He studied classical techniques and is known as one of the founders of Impressionism. Fun fact: he didn't have enough money to always buy canvas or paper, so he often drew and painted on cardboard.
This is just one nugget of knowledge I learned last Saturday at the Smithsonian Associates incredible workshop,“Learn, Look, Create: Investigating the Art of Drawing.” Led by artist and art historian Joseph Cassar, workshop participants explored the art of drawing through lectures, demonstrations, a museum visit, and hands-on studio time.
Photo by Haley Moen
The day began with Cassar’s captivating presentation on the history of drawing. He explained the fundamental drawing techniques and materials used by master artists, such as Michelangelo, Fra Bartolomeo, and Albrecht Dürer. For example, he shared photos of Michelangelo's sketches to show that every masterpiece begins with a drawing, such as Michelangelo's beloved paintings, The Creation of Adam and The Last Judgement.
Michelangelo's study for The Creation of Adam, 1508
Study for The Last Judgment, unknown
Artists, such as Michelangelo, used the most common drawing mediums - charcoal and conté. Charcoal is a carbon made from spindle tree wood. It has a powdery, dark residue and it's easy to erase. By contrast, conté is compressed powdered graphite or charcoal mixed with wax or clay to produce a shiny, polished finish.
Cassar discussed and demonstrated both mediums throughout the day. During our private tour of a few rooms in the Hirshhorn Museum, he used charcoal to teach the technique when you don't lift your pencil from the paper. He described it as "capturing the rhythm of the subject," and he said that Henri Matisse described it as “taking a line for a walk."
Cassar demonstrating drawing techniques
Photos by Haley Moen
When I tried the "no picking your pen up from the paper" technique, I wanted to fix and erase my marks. Then I thought about what Cassar said during his lecture:
“Art is serious. But please, take it a little lightly….because it should be fun, too!”
Cassar was an entertaining speaker. He exudes passion for art, and it’s clear that he’s talented and knowledgeable. After all, he earned 5 art degrees! He studied art at the Malta Government School of Art and at the Accademia di Belle Arti Pietro Vannucci in Perugia, Italy. He has a PhD in Art History and Criticism from the University of Malta, an MFA from Charles Sturt University, New South Wales, Australia, and an MA from Columbia Pacific University, San Rafael, California. He is a super cool guy – learn more about him here.
After the Hirshhorn museum visit, we enjoyed a delicious catered lunch. It was the perfect fuel for the latter half of the day: more demonstrations by Cassar and studio time to apply what we learned.
Cassar began by showing us the cross-hatching technique to render darks and lights with graphite pencils. Later we used charcoal sticks, which were messy but fun! We drew spheres with dramatic lighting.
Drawing and Photo by Haley Moen
This program was a fantastic way to explore the history and fundamental techniques of drawing. One of my favorite moments of the day was during Cassar's tour of the Hirshhorn Museum, when he led us to Jannis Kounellis' installation of plasters of Greek busts and figures. They're fragmented and precariously arranged to suggest a breakdown of art and the destruction of cultural cohesion. The broken parts, however, can still be drawn, studied for artistic purposes, or viewed for aesthetic pleasure. They're still there. Cassar even told us that he strictly studied plasters of classic busts and figures for four years in Italy. While this installation suggests the downfall of classical art, it may also represent it's survival and hope: the survival of traditional art ideologies and the hope that art from all centuries will be respected and preserved, one way or another.
On that note, here is one more nugget of knowledge Cassar shared while discussing the evolution of drawing:
"Anything that is old does not mean that it's old-fashioned. Anything that is new does not mean that it's better. We must analyze carefully."
This awesome workshop was one of many that we offer. It also counted as a 1-credit elective course for our exciting Certificate Program in World Art History. I loved it because of its unique combination of lectures, a museum tour, demonstrations, and studio-time. At the end of the day I was particularly inspired to keep investigating the rich history of this timeless art. Stay tuned for more re-caps of the programs we offer here at the Associates!