On the live stream event Master Monday, NMA founder Joshua Jacobo taught students using the etchings by Renaissance artist Odoardo Fialetti from the world’s oldest how-to-draw book.
There’s something about learning to draw that fascinates us. Today, seeing a representational drawing done in real-time or even a time-lapse video of a drawing can almost seem like magic. We’re left astonished, wondering, “How did they do that?”
Occasionally, one seems blessed with the ability for drawing, and I think it’s true: some of us, for one reason or another, possess a predisposition that pushes us in an artistic direction. This does not discredit the mass amount of practice and hard work employed by those of us who wish to cultivate this predisposition into greatness.
The magic of drawing is closely associated with representing the human figure; we identify ourselves with our own representations, and how we represent ourselves says a lot about what we think it means to be human beings. In other words, our works of art are often mirrors in which we can witness the spirit, the magic, of our species.
Sharing the spirit of our species in art requires a certain level of mastery, a mastery of representing the human figure. The approach to mastering drawing the human figure has evolved over the past five centuries, but the drawing manual has been an ever-helpful aid.
Drawing manuals that focused on the human figure came in different types: sometimes, they were very theoretical, as in the case of Albrecht Durer’s Four Books on Human Proportions (1528); other times, they were based on a union between the study of science and art, as in the case of Bernard Albinus’s and Jan Wandelaar’s joint effort to produce the Tables of the Human Body and Tables of the Human Bones (1747). Another example of this scientific approach would be Dr. Paul Richet’s Artistic Anatomy (1889).
Still, there were the drawing manuals that simply focused on drawings or etchings of the human figure to be copied. The 19th century produced the famous Charles Bargue Drawing Course (1866) by the French painters Charles Bargue and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and this course would become an instrumental tool in instructing several of the 19th and 20th century’s well-known artists.
This type of drawing manual, in which the student mostly copied plates, was part of a long lineage of drawing manuals. The 17th century produced several of these drawing manuals, which included some of the first published drawing manuals of our known history in the West.
Frederick de Wit, a Dutch engraver, published his drawing manual Lumen Picturae between 1660 and 1675. This was an extremely rare book at the time of its publication and those who owned it would safeguard it like a secret to be kept. The crosshatched etchings in the book revealed a simplified outline of the human figure next to its full rendering. These etchings were to be studied by copying.
Lumen Picturae was not the first of its kind, however. The Carracci cousins — artists and founders of one of the first art Academies in Italy, the Accademia degli Incamminati — also produced a drawing manual around 1609 called the Scuola perfetta per imparare a disegnare tutto il corpo humano cavata dallo studio (Perfect school to learn how to draw the whole human body from the studio). It included drawings from multiple artists, including Agostino Carracci and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
The earliest drawing manual that focused on the human figure in this way was Bolognese artist Odoardo Fialetti’s Il vero modo et ordine per dissegnar tvtte le parti et membra del corpo hvmano (The true way and order for designing all the parts and limbs of the human body) published in 1608. Like the manual produced by the Carracci cousins, this manual had a series of plates that described the human figure and its parts in elaborate crosshatching.
These manuals allowed aspiring artists to work from the comfort of their homes instead of the studio of a master artist. But how do these manuals instruct us on the magic of drawing the human figure?
Maybe the magic of drawing the human figure is based on accurate representation from life, in which case the anatomical manuals from Richet and Albinus would help us come to obtain this magic, and sure they would, but it can’t be representation from life alone that conjures this magic. Leonardo and Michelangelo both studied anatomy for years, but their artistic productions (as opposed to their studies) are rarely scientifically anatomical or precise. These artists, though copiers of nature, were not slaves of nature; interestingly, they were able to transcend the confines of what they studied by way of their study.
Here is another difference between the drawing manuals: some are more theoretical and some are more practical. There is a contemporary debate in philosophy concerning which should be primary: theory or practice. We use theory to rationalize our place in the world, but we use practice to affect our world. This debate influences almost every aspect of our lives: it is one thing to come up with a plan to get in shape, but it is another to implement it, and implementing it is impossible without the plan; it is one thing to think about what it means to be a good person and another to practice being a good person, which requires considering what it means to be a good person.
The drawing manuals that focus on practice ask of the student to be a drawer in the act of drawing; they ask the student to not simply think about drawing but to be present, to be aware while drawing.
Copying from the drawing manual asks of the student to build an empathetic relationship with what is being copied, which is the human figure in this instance; it asks that the student, at least at the moment, put their preferences — their ego — to the side and copy the original on its own merit; the copy is not merely an exercise in drawing technique (unless it is done mindlessly) but is also a practice of empathy in which the student doesn’t make its own demands but asks of the original to reveal its magic. In philosophy, empathy is the ability to feel what another feels, and compassion is to act in response to empathy. The copy, as an empathetic experience with the object to be copied — the human figure — and the artist who originally created it, is potentially a practice in compassion.
Copying at the French Academy was a way of building an empathetic relationship with the efforts of the old masters; it was a way in which the artist communicated with and carried forth the magic of art. According to Albert Boime in the book The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century,
“The practice of copying aimed at developing the pupil’s power of invention by the study of the old masters’ compositions, and second it aimed at familiarizing the pupil with the technical procedures of the old masters… Copying was also considered indispensable to developing the imagination, to helping the pupil amass compositional ideas and to interpreting nature originally, ‘which demands a faculty of interpretation that the study of the works provided by the old masters is well calculated to develop’” (42).
Ironically, the copy was considered the source of creativity, and if my argument so far holds any weight, since the copy is a practice of empathy and compassion, it is empathy and compassion that are the source of creativity.
Copying was not a practice confined to the arts of the West. Maybe the traditional art of painting in the East will help shed light on this. According to Brenda Jordan in Copying the Master and Stealing His Secrets, “copybooks” were very common in teaching the art of painting in Asia. Jordan states,
“[B]oth students and professional painters copied works of the old masters as a practical means of learning and reproducing certain styles. At the same time, they considered this practice a means by which to connect with the character and spirit of the old masters and to transmit that spirit forward in one’s own work. This desire to make painting resonate with spirit by copying the masters had long been an important concept in the circles of Chinese scholar-literati. The Japanese embraced this idea and incorporated it into their artistic culture” (38).
Jordan also relays a quote from the samurai painter Hayashi Moriatsu concerning the significance of copying the old masters:
“The person who desires to draw properly the correct way and uses [copying] every time without changing the rules of the ancients is one who understands that he is inadequate; [he] comprehends the sacredness of the men of old, is roused to try to achieve the true path of painting, and wishes to search for the divine spirit” (37).
Drawing manuals have been a part of art curricula across cultures for centuries, and they will continue to be of the utmost importance. But considering the aforementioned, I wonder if there is a continued place for the copying of the human figure as created by the old masters in our digital age. I say yes there is, for the copy gives us access to our past, to the efforts of the ones before us, to the spirit of an artistic age, and to our own empathetic capabilities, the compassion by which we exhibit the magic of drawing.
Bargue, Charles, et al. Drawing Course. 2019.
Boime, Albert. The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century. Yale University Press, 1986.
Jordan, Brenda G., and Victoria Louise Weston, editors. Copying the Master and Stealing His Secrets: Talent and Training in Japanese Painting. University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2003.
Wit, Frederrick de. Lumen Picturæ: A Classical Drawing Manual. Harper Design, 2011.