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Every great piece of art goes through a creative process, but that process is hidden and often forgotten. In this article, we will show you famous sketches made by the greatest artists. 

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Sketches are the most under looked and underrated artworks in history. (Yes, artworks!) We often only have the chance to look at the finalised artwork in the museums' walls which leads the viewer to think that artists are geniuses. Indeed, artists are geniuses! But to be a genius also requires a lot of work and effort. And that is where sketches are included in the story. Every great piece of art goes through a creative process, but that process is hidden and often forgotten. Sketches is the how a great artwork becomes iconic: with lots of experimentation and practice.

From drafts, doodles, sketches, texts, instructions- anything you can imagine is what leads to the finalised artwork. The creative process can be very time consuming, and its primary goal is to develop ideas and test out colours, shapes, sizes, composition. 

Probably that ruins the fantasy for many that the artist is a genius capable of achieving perfection in a single attempt. But every art piece is backed up with a lifetime of practice, experiments and fails. Many times, the creative process is indeed more rewarding and intimate to watch than the perfected artwork.

But where do artists keep track of all this process? The famous term "sketchbook" is the answer.

 

The sketchbook and the sketch

To look at an artist sketchbook is an intimate act, and if you ever do/did that, you may feel privileged. The sketchbook is a visual diary of thought, a journal that ghosts the artist pathway, a friend. This way, the artist never misses an opportunity to note the beauty of things that they are surrounded by. These drawing diaries are an open space for expression—a space without pressure or judgement. Sketchbooks are considered the window to the soul of the artist. Full of details, sketchbooks are a visually pleasing mess that usually tells more about the artist than about the artworks itself.

There are also a variety of types of drawings that can compose the sketchbook, and that may vary with the time the artist employs in it. A sketch is more of a preliminary draft of an idea- a rough alignment of lines that might structure the finalise artwork. A sketch is less detailed than a study but more elaborated than a doodle.

Some artworks and artists are particularly famous for their iconic sketches. The aura of such doodling of the ideas gives the viewer an intimate connection to the finalised piece, and indeed it makes an artwork far more interesting. Let's look at some of the most iconic sketches of all time.

 

1. Le Corbusier

The French-swiss Painter, sculptor, architect, urbanist and writer was a visionary of his time. Le Corbusier is widely recognised for his modernist architectonic projects and urban spaces. He was inspired by his travels, art and notions of "order". Le Corbusier designed imaginative spaces exploring simpler forms of everyday life, purifying and organising cubist shapes. In this famous sketch, we can have a glimpse of what his travels may have looked like: urban spaces, buildings, and animals. Along with the drawing, we can also see some notes that guide the thought process of the artist.

 

Le Corbusier, Sketch of bulls and peasant houses near Chandigarh, dated March 1951; Courtesy Foundation Le Corbusier, Paris.

 

 

2. Zaha Hadid

Zaza Hadid was the first women to gain recognition in an industry-led by men at the time. The Iraqi-British architect was praised for her liberation of lines and shapes in the building's design. Zaza Hadid is known as the "Queen of the Curve" because of her unusual approach to traditional architecture. Her radical approach shifted architecture from geometrical patterns towards asymmetric, curvy and abstract designs. In this sketch, we can see her spatial conceptualisation of the building "Phaeno Sciecnce Center". 

 

Zaza Hadid, Sketch for Phaeno Science Center, undated.

 

Zaza Hadid, Phaeno Science Center , Wolfsburg, Germany, 2005. Courtesy Zaza Hadid Architects. Photo by Werner Huthmacher.

 

3. Edgar Degas

Degas was a French sculptor and painter that was an enthusiast about the human body. In his works, he portrayed mainly women - dancers, singers, and laundresses – in robust, innovative and unusual postures. He was intrigued by the challenges of capturing the light accurately and often used artificial light to enhance some theatricality in the figures he portrayed. There are a variety of sketches that have been publicly shared by recognised institutions. In his sketches, you can see his human body studies and how Degas was fascinated by women in delicate but strong postures.

 

Edgar Degas, “Danseuse de dos”, Unknown, Red chalk on paper, 24 × 32 cm. Courtesy Artsy.

 

4. Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh almost does not need a presentation. Everyone has a slight idea of who he was and how visionary and influential he is in the art world. The Dutch painter is also known to be the stereotypical image of the tortured artist because Van Gogh struggled with mental health issues his whole life. Despite that, he created dense and vivid impressionist paintings that reflected his spiritual chaos. The famous artist also kept a sketchbook where he drew some studies to some of his most influential pieces like "Chair". For Van Gogh maybe the sketchbook was really a way of clearing his clouded mind and organising his thoughts. 

 

Vincent van Gogh, Saint-Rémy: March - April 1890, Drawing, Pencil, Courtesy Van Gogh Museum.

 

Van Gogh's Chair, 1888 . Courtesy of www.VincentVanGogh.org.

 

5. Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele was an Austrian painter that is widely admired by his erotic drawings. His bold signature style challenged conventional forms of beauty through the exploration of his models' psyche and sexuality. His drawings and paintings depicted nude models in unsettling poses that avoided depiction of the genre. Schiele markings were aggressive, strong and bold, which enhanced the distorted notions of the beauty. Most of his well-known artworks are taken from his sketchbooks. Schiele sketches are considered to be artworks in their own right. In this image, you can see a Schiele sketch found in a drift store in 2018. 

 

Egon Schiele drawing, 1918. Courtesy: Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

 

6. Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci is an undisputable genius of his time. He was a master of the Italian Renaissance, demonstrating expertise in multiple areas such as painting, sculpture, architecture, anatomy, geology, maths, science, astronomy and many others. His signature style was known to be precise and realistic. He also introduced a new technique called "sfumato" to which lots of artists still try to master nowadays. Da Vinci, like any other artist, practised the art of the sketch and his multiple sketchbooks can be seen in various institutions around the globe. In this sketch, we can see a preliminary study that may have influenced the famous Mona Lisa painting. 

 

Leonardo Da Vinci, Portrait d'Isabelle d'Este (Portrait of Isabella d'Este), 1499-1500. Courtesy Musée du Louvre.

 

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa. Courtesy Musée du Louvre.

 

7. Pieter Paul Rubens

Rubens is another Old Master that exceeded in the Baroque Movement. His paintings showed an evident influence by the Italian Renaissance with a touch of theatricality. Rubens signature style was known to emphasise movement, colour, light, drama and sensuality. His highly charged compositions refer to Christian History and the myths of the Catholic Church. “Daniel in the Lions' Den” ( 1614-16) is a very iconic painting of Rubens, and there is a publicly known early sketch of these lions. The sketch is slightly more developed than just a preliminary drawing as we can note some study of light and texture. This lion sketch may actually be more famous than the painting itself. 

 

Peter Paul Rubens, “Lion”, ca. 1612-1613, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Courtesy Artsy.

 

Peter Paul Rubens, “Daniel in the Lions' Den”, ca. 1614/1616, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Courtesy Artsy.

 

8. Frank Gerhy

Frank Gehry is the most famous living architect in the 21st century. The Canadian American architect is renowned for his unique style rooted in the modernism, considered to be entertaining, surprising and functional. He uses a variety of materials, ranging from cheap, mass-produced items to expensive and rare materials. His deconstructed style relies on hand-drawn sketches rather than sophisticated software, allowing the artists to have a more intimate connection with every line he puts on paper (and consequently with the building). The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is one of his most notable projects and also one of the most prestigious buildings since its construction. In the images, you can see Gehry first hand-drawn sketch of the Bilbao Museum. Gehry says his inspiration to design such a layered structure was fish.

 

Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, design sketch of the riverfront elevation, Bilbao, Spain, 1991, 22.9 × 30.5 cm. Courtesy Artsy.  

 

Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Photography by Martin Steger.

 

9. Pablo Picasso

Picasso was one of the most influential artists from the 20th century. He was a pioneer of the Cubist movement and made some contributions to Symbolism and Surrealism. Although he is mainly recognised for his paintings, Picasso also was a sculptor, printmaker and ceramist. His charismatic personality captured the attention of many women, whom he used as models for his artworks. He was highly admired for his deconstruction of the space and perspective, with the use of bold and robust markings and colours. Like every other artist, he used to keep sketchbooks to perform his studies for posterior paintings. As we can see "Les femmes d’Alger" (1955) was not an exception of that. We may see the simplified work of forms, shapes and colours represented in an early sketch preparation for the iconic painting.  

 

Pablo Picasso, “Les femmes d'Alger (Women of Algiers”), 1955, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Courtesy Artsy.  
Pablo Picasso, “Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'O')”, 1955. Courtesy Christie's.

 

10. Eugene Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix was one of the leading figures of Romanticism and one of the most praised painters from the 19th century. His paintings are characterised by vivid and agitated colours concerning the sublime and the exoticism. He often painted contemporary scenarios featuring violence and tragedy in dramatic and dynamic compositions. Delacroix was known to have a sketchbook always at hand to which he used to draw his visits to the opera house or the theatre. The artist also used these sketchbooks to experiment compositions for his paintings. 

 

Eugène Delacroix,“Le 28 juillet — la liberté guidant le people”, 1830. Oil on canvas, 64.5 x 81.3 cm. Courtesy Christies London.

 

11. William Turner

To finish off this list, it had to be William Turner. Turner has got probably the most well-known collection of sketches and sketchbooks ever made. Turner was a British artist that is widely praised for his contributions for the Romantic Movement. In his paintings, he reflected on the importance of the individual experience in the Englightmenet era. Through sublime scenarios, Turner heightened notions of the consciousness and the being. His painting technique emphasised the power of nature and the fragility of the being. Turner sketchbooks were a fundamental discovery to study his understanding of the world. In his sketchbooks, he used pencil primarily and occasionally did some experimentations with watercolours. Most of these sketchbooks belong to the Tate Collection at TATE. 

 

William Turner, Two Studies of Figures: Two Women with a Jug, Watching a Man Kneeling to Play Marbles; Studies of the Man’s Hands and Left Leg 1794. Courtesy Tate Collection.

 

As you may see, sketchbooks function like a second skin of the artists and indeed a necessity to keep track of the artist's ideas. Sketches are a primordial form of art, and although it may not be considered a fine artwork itself, sketches are as insightful and significant as the completed artwork. Sketches are valued and admired in its terms and category and should never be understood as less valuable. Sketches are carriers of history, experiments, memories, stories and are an estimable element in art history. All the artists mentioned above are much praised nowadays, and that might have something to do with the time they employed to sketching ideas and compositions. No great artwork is known to be the first-ever attempt.  Every great artist used sketchbooks as a tool of development and growth in a search for personal style and technique.

 

Cover image: Edgar Degas, “Danseuse de dos”, Unknown, Red chalk on paper, 24 × 32 cm. Courtesy Artsy.

Written by Tania Teixeira 

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