Of all the Ninja Turtles…uh, I mean Renaissance masters, It’s Leonardo da Vinci that calls to me, not Raphael, and yet, lately I have come to fall madly and passionately in love with Raphael’s drawings. I’ve come to love them so much that I’ve been sneaking (so called) spare moments to copy them in graphite and conte pencil in order to grasp at a few of this master’s secrets.
The romance began when I saw an exhibit of Raphael’s drawings at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England this past fall. Only in the UK, or perhaps New York, would such an exhibit be packed to the gills with excited onlookers. Only in the UK though, would the onlookers really be studying the drawings for as long as they could without being excessively rude. Not reading the cards, though they did that eventually, not taking selfies with the drawings since photos were not allowed. Studying the drawing, the marks, the shadow, the pricks of a cartoon used to transfer the design for painting, the subtlety, the tilt of the heads, the musculature, the classically Renaissance gesture. The room was stifling, the line barely moving, yet no one complained. Not in The States, folks. It never would have happened this way. And my husband and I couldn’t get enough.
The thing about Raphael that gets me, is that I cannot see his drawings as two-dimensional no matter how I try. One secret to drawing anything is to close one eye, let go of the three-dimensional world and study only the flat light and shadow of any shape. This is how you learn to translate light and dark into something that hopefully takes on the illusion of 3-d. This typically works when drawing from life or when drawing a photograph or copying a master’s drawing.
Try as I might, I close one eye, and stare at Raphael’s drawings in books or on postcards, and only marginally does the 3-d effect disappear. Mostly, the figures retain their depth, and the only way I can come close to learning how he rendered an eye or lips is to draw the photo upside down. It’s not that his drawings are hyper-realistic in their execution. Even his more finished drawings are a bit sketchy, literally. Wildly though, they convey light and dark so compellingly that they create the illusion of space and depth.
I was also fortunate to see another drawing exhibit of old masters at the National Portrait Gallery while in London and yet another at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The catalogs live on my drawing table for stolen moments for rough sketches. My attempts fall painfully short, but even as I struggle to get them right, I am consoled by the fact that I didn’t quite copy the master correctly. As my friend, Ricky Frank used to say, “Reach for the moon. If you fail, you’ll still be hanging out with the stars.”