Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mass drawing, and the scarcity of linear drawing in our current era

Here is a drawing by Jean Clouet 1485-1541. It is of course an example of a linear style of drawing. Clouet was a portrait artist in the French court and was a creator of many fashionable drawings. Noble patrons bought and exchanged these drawings as we might exchange photographs today.Here is another

This is the work of Hans Holbein the younger 1497-1593. They may have met, although Holbein worked in the English court he traveled through France and they were contemporaries. I think it is amazing how similar their work is.

and here is another by Holbein

When I was a student I copied a number of drawings by each of these artists. Their eloquent and understated style seemed to me to be the ultimate way of drawing. I liked the repression, and the ethereally delicate modulation of the values that made these drawings so subtle. Another artist whose drawings have the same sensibility, although he lived a little later is Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres 1780-1867. I have shown his drawings before on this blog. He gets my vote for greatest draftsman.

Here is another Ingres head with much the same sort of an aesthetic.

One of my readers is working on a portrait and that got me to thinking of the different approaches to drawing . I am next going to show you some mass drawings, that are from the opposite end of the spectrum and are made with strongly stated values. The seem to me to have power rather than delicate elegance.

This head of Isabella Brandt, his wife, is by Peter Paul Rubens 1577-1640 This is a tonal or mass approach. Here is another example below.

This figure was drawn by Michelangelo 1475-1564 and is another example of mass drawing.

Linear and mass drawing, these are really the two great poles of artistic drawing. As an artist it is best to be able to do a little of both of them. Painters today tend to think in mass, and sometimes it is called the painters way of drawing. The implications of impressionism are largely tonal, the French impressionists obliterated line and worked entirely in mass, and we are almost all the result of that system of thinking. We hear so much about the "war" between the impressionist and the academic painters of the 19th century. I think too much is made of that, by the way. Looked back on from the distance in time at which we now stand, they seem more like each other than the avant garde art that followed them , which seems to be totally unlike either.

Here are two drawings by the Fenchman Pierre-Paul Prud'hon 1758-1823


Within a short generation the academies and then the art schools began to teach a method of painting that was heavily influenced by impressionism. By 1900 virtually all of the training in the art schools was based on impressionism. My own teacher R.H.Ives Gammell was essentially an impressionist trained painter, and he spent his whole career trying to do academic paining using that impressionist training. I think in a way he was hobbled by that, as the things he made were influenced more by the pre impressionist generation. Either way for better or worse we are nearly all of us painting today from a mostly impressionist sensibility. As a landscape painter, that's pretty logical for me and not really a problem. If I wanted to make allegorical paintings it might be.

Where I am going with all of this is, it seems to me that the linear style of drawing is becoming less and less common today. Most, not all, but most of thecontemporary drawings I see reproduced in the art magazines today are mass drawings. I think that the computer generated art that I see out there is heavily weighted towards mass drawing. The manga and graphic novel artists are more linear but and work leans toward a "cartoon sensibility" rather than realism. The linear draings above are not like cartoons, but are a reductionist kind of realism. I would have thought that the stripped down, simplification of linear drawing would be most popular in our "modernist" infleunced era.

I wonder if line drawing now seems archaic to contemporary viewers or whether it is harder for them to read because of all the photographs we see daily. Photographs are of course a mass treatment, rather than a linear one.

Other than in cartoons we seem to see linear drawing only in explanatory art, blueprints and instruction manuals .When I was younger there was a lot of fashion illustration in the magazines which was done in a linear style, and their were often little pen drawings illustrating magazines. Those have both gone away too. Perhaps it is only fashion or perhaps it is more. Either way I hope that as traditional painting is revived, which sure seems to be happening today, we again see a renewed popularity of line as a drawing medium.

Illustrations courtesy artrenewal.org.


Knitting Out Loud said...

These drawings just blew me away. As did your wonderful description "the ethereally delicate modulation of the values". Have always loved Clouet. Don't Ingres and Prud'hon look a bit soul-less (sp?) next to the others?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Perhaps Prud'hon,but not Ingres, he is so fabulous, I love him,he HAS MORE SOUL THAN SAM COOKE.

Anonymous said...

Interesting about the difference between line drawing and mass drawing- that's the first time I've seen the comparison made.

Was Rembrandt a mass or line artist or both? It could be argued that he was adept at both, especially when you look at his etchings.

Just found your blog- look forward to spending some time here!

Knitting Out Loud said...

Well, don't know much about history, (didn't Sam Cooke's soul get him in trouble?)and I also love Ingres, but you can not say he has more soul than Holbein and Clouet. He's cold, it was his goal, and his charm.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I shall allow you the last word.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Check out this blog,

its scary to write on drawing and then find out folks like this are out there. This is an exciting draftsman.
I am going to have readers shooting at me for a week, however, I would classify Rembrandt as decidedly a mass drawing guy. In the etchings, and in his drawings. Most etchers tend to be mass drawing types despite the line nature of the medium. The ability to raise burr and work with softpoint methods makes etching ideally suited to chiaroscuro.I guess I need to do a series of posts on etching too. I collect them.I actuall met my wife by inviting she and her roommate home to see my etchings after a party.

armandcabrera said...


Great post. I always associate linear drawing with people like Heinrich Kley and Alphonse Mucha. Mucha especially had a elegant graphic style to his work. He could draw hands and feet better than anybody.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks,I used a Heinrich Kley on this blog recently. I idolized him in high school.Maybe I need to do a Heinrich Kley post.Check out Armands blog at



Unknown said...

Very interesting post. I just got done reading The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed where he spends many chapters talking about both linear and mass drawing. The linear examples you chose are really beautiful and I will be copying them all.

jeff said...

seems to me that one should both.
Anthony Ryder does both, he starts out with a very controlled contour and then uses the pencil, not unlike painting in this regard, to build up the tonalities.

Unknown said...

Stape, we are on the same wavelength. I was just thinking about line vs mass this morning, and how I want to add more line into my studies.

This has been a very liberating post for me. I have always loved line drawing, but have always been instructed to draw tonally (now I realize, a product of the type of classes/workshops I have taken). I see the benefit of doing linear drawings. Ingres' drawings show the same wonderful suppression of values in the lights as his paintings do - I want to study him and someday achieve that.

In regards to Jeff's comment, I would most assuredly put Anthony Ryder in the mass category. Sure he uses line, but only to block in the contour of the figure. After that he uses multiple layers of hatches to build up tone. Also, there is not much suppression of light values in his work. In fact, a lot of his drawing is kind of low key. Look at his painting process too - same thing.

jeff said...

Well you can't have tone without a values, right. You have to deal with the massing of these values, general to specific.

The way Tony draws is very linear in fact having studied this methodology myself I would have to disagree with you. His paintings are drawn out, then filled in. He does both. He also does not do as much cross hatching as it might seem. There are a lot of techniques being used here, he's a master at graphite.

If your doing a massed in approach your not going to do this. You will mass in a shape, not draw a linear line drawing. In Tony' approach, which comes out Ted Seth Jacobs, you spend a lot of time working on linear relationships. You draw out the shapes of the shadows and so on. Tone does not enter into this until you get all the contour right.

I would say that's pretty linear approach.

Lets look at another painter, Gregg Kreutz he uses a massing in approach and from what I have seen of how these two teach based on their books mind you, there is a huge difference in how these two approach drawing, especially as it pertains to painting.

Ramon said...

Hi Stape, great post as usual! We actually had a very interesting discussion on conceptart.org regarding different drawing approaches...although the focus was not so much on line vs mass, as it was on tactile (3d, form driven) vs optical (2d, shape driven) approaches.

This is all very interesting, I ended up writing more than I intended in the discussion! (I'm panchosimpson)

Check it out if you have a chance


This post in particular


Unknown said...

Jeff, I see what your saying. Tony is definitely on the other end of the spectrum as Gregg Kreutz. I have read Tony's book so I know how much he relies on linear relationships, but so did Prud'hon, and Michaelangelo, etc., which Stape classified as mass drawing. I agree with what you are saying, I think that we are mostly differing on semantics. He is linear in approach, but most of the linear quality seems to disappear (in my opinion) as he resolves the form into a solid, fleshy thing, while it is still very evident in a finished drawing of Holbein or Ingres.

jeff said...

Yes that's true Jeremy it does become more like painting when he moves to the value part, but he's still thinking about the form and edges.

When I think of massing I think of the DuMond idea which is pretty much related to painting. In his approach you start out with the largest masses and the drawing is about the action and so on.

Holbein is trained in the German school which is very different from the Italian schools of this period. They were very linear in their approach. Careful drawing, then they would ink the panel and then paint.

Very different from Titian or Tintoretto.

I am partial to both, how it is mentioned the Speed books.

Stapleton Kearns said...

All of these are things I copied myself. Ingres and Holbein are particularly good. I used tom copy ther Ingres from the originals at the Fogg museum.

Stapleton Kearns said...

In have to fight tthe tendency to do mass drawing all thje time. It is what comes most naturally to me.It would be nice to be for comfortable in a more linear techn ique.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think the mass to linear thing iss a continuum with Holbein or Hypolytte Flandrin being at one end and Michelangelo or someone like that on the other.
I don't comment on living artists other than Alex Katz.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I read your post. Maybe you should be doing guest shots on this post.I had no idea any one over at concept art was into the fine distinctions between 18th and 19th century drawings, Who knew.
They have linked to me several times and some of those guys follow this blog. I am glad to be useful to them but I am surprised, as I am such a traditional painting guy. I guess a lot is universal.

Ramon said...


Before the days of forums like rationalpainting.org, concept art was THE place to get honest, brutal criticism, which is why I joined in the first place.

There are quite a few people solely interested in becoming painters that post there (like me), so I'm not surprised that they'd like your blog.

And quite frankly I'm just a kid talking about stuff that's probably way beyond his understanding. Although I sure like looking at drawings!