Where Are All the Drawings?

etching by Pierfrancesco Alberti
etching by Pierfrancesco Alberti

Have you ever wondered where all the drawings from the old masters were? Not the ones in museums but the thousands of drawings they made while perfecting their craft?

It’s a secret that not too many people want to acknowledge, but artists are not born knowing how to draw and paint. It takes years and sometimes decades of practice to achieve high levels in either medium. So, where are all the practice drawings?

In the book Rembrandt: The Painter at Work by Ernst Van De Wetering, the author was wondering the same thing. Paper was hard to produce, making it rare and costly in Europe for many centuries. Art apprentices, mostly young boys, would not be allowed to ruin such an expensive material while they were learning.

Instead apprentices would draw with a metal stylus on a wooden board prepared with a coating of bone meal and saliva. Later they coated sheets of paper the same way, but used gum arabic as the binder so the bone meal wouldn’t fall off. The metal stylus was a dry medium, meaning it could not be smudged or changed once a mark was made. To fix a mistake the bone meal coating had to be moistened and the line, or complete drawing, rubbed away.

Even master artists would use this method, writing in small notebooks with coated erasable paper.

I can imagine groups of small boys trying their hardest to copy a master’s drawing of an eye or hand and showing it the master to correct or praise. After the master made a few marks, I think the boys would study the drawing, only to wipe the board clean and start again.

Portrait of a Boy with a Drawing by Giamfrancesco Caroto
Portrait of a Boy with a Drawing by Giamfrancesco Caroto

The joy on this boy’s face when the master must have praised his drawing for the day makes me smile. I wonder if the master artist was an old man who let the inspiration of a boy’s achievement fill his soul and put paint to panel.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad he made the painting. And I’m glad to know that we artists aren’t that different than our artistic ancestors.