How is a work of art actually created? And how does an artist proceed from the initial idea to the finished work? This is a digital companion to our exhibition Art in the Making (8 February - 6 May 2018), where we focus on artistic creativity as seen in Western European art from the fifteenth century up until the early twentieth century, breaking away from the romantic notion of the lonely artist-genius who, in a moment of rapture, creates a unique masterpiece independently of time and space. Here you can experience digitized of just some of the works on display in the exhibition.

I. The myths

Many theories have arisen about how a work of art comes into existence. They all have in common, however, the assumption that artists are equipped with particular creative abilities which differentiate them from other people. Inspiration, the ability to catch sight of possibilities hidden to ordinary mortals, and finally deprivation and concentration on work to the point of obsession, are the three most frequently identified components in the myths about how art comes into being.

Federico Zuccari’s (1541-1609) drawings depict his brother, Taddeo Zuccari, and how he suffered deprivation and toil for the sake of art.

At the gates of Rome, Taddeo is greeted by hard labour, servitude and ailment, and when he applies for work he is rebuffed and walks away in tears.

II. Mental images and idea-sketches

Theorising on the making of art began as far back as the fifteenth century. In Florence, Italy, writers, artists and scholars wrote about art, laying down the foundations of the perception of art prevalent in the Western world today. In the early seventeenth century, artist and art theorist Federico Zuccari (1541-1609) distinguished between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ drawings. To him, the ‘inner drawing’ refers to the archetypal divine ideas that inspire mental images. They can be captured and turned into ‘outer drawings’ – the visual realisation of the inner mental images in the artist’s mind.

In his study for The Death of Empedocles, Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) let his hand follow his flickering mental images so that Empedocles is seen to fall in several stages, almost as if in a film.

Everything was scratched down at great speed, causing the drapery and limbs to become entangled in a chaotic network of lines.

III. Determining the composition

When the main characteristics of the artist’s fleeting initial mental image had been set down in the idea-sketch, the artist embarked on a more detailed rendition. This type of drawing is quite naturally more detailed than the idea-sketches. Once the composition has been determined, the picture’s message is more clearly evident – overemphasis in the right places helps get the message clearly across. The nature of this work varied greatly from one artist to the next. The exact composition chosen might arise out of the whole, a scenographic construct, or a single figure.

On one side of the sheet the woman is shown in full-length, sitting in a chair with the skull in her lap.

The other side of the sheet shows a half-length figure clutching a skull to her chest in the same manner as she appears in the finished painting.

Once the composition has been determined, the picture’s message is more clearly evident – overemphasis in the right places helps get the message clearly across.

IV. Detail-studies: Female models

When the artist had settled on a composition, the next step often involved studies of figures and details. Drawings of this kind are more concrete than composition sketches. Here, the artist would usually adjust the concept-based composition sketch by executing studies based on a live model placed in the planned pose or objects arranged as in the sketch. At this point the artist no longer focused on coming up with new ideas or changing the composition, devoting his attention to its individual components instead.

Christen Købke (1810-1848) and Erling Eckersberg (1808-1889) sat next to each other, viewing her from the rear. 


V. The cartoon

Once the conceptual sketches and detail-studies had been made, it was time to fuse them. The fusion of idea-sketch and detail-study was usually carried out in a cartoon. A cartoon is a drawing sharing the same format as the final painting. Asmus Jacob Carstens’s (1754-1798) watercolour Fingal’s battle with the spirit of Loda is an example of a cartoon made specifically to arouse customer interest. It was executed shortly before 1796 in Rome, where the German-Danish poet and art lover Frederikke Brun saw it and ordered a version in oil. Cartoons gradually evolved into detailed drawings with precisely worked-out light and shadow effects. They eventually assumed the status of works of art in their own right, possessed of both aesthetic value and potential for collecting.

In order to transfer the watercolour to canvas, Carstens created a tracing by placing a piece of thin transparent paper on top of the watercolour, tracing the outlines and subsequently transferring them onto the ground for the painting.

Impressions from the tool used for this process can be detected here and there as dents along the outlines of the watercolour.

VI. The academies: Bendz

Drawings also allow us to see how the artists worked in their workshops and at the academies. Before the eighteenth century, aspiring artists trained as craftsmen under experienced masters. With the introduction of absolute monarchy in the eighteenth century, the state assumed control of the art scene. Royal art academies were established in order to ensure a sufficient supply of artists to decorate the monarchs’ palaces and official buildings. In Denmark, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen was officially founded in 1754. Draughtsmanship was regarded as the cornerstone of all artistic endeavour. As a result, the academies did not teach painting until far up into the nineteenth century.

The students were seated by rank, the most senior ones in the middle. We see, for example, Martinus Rørbye receive instruction from C.W. Eckersberg.

The youngest students were seated to the far left and right – including Bendz, who was clearly more interested in the janitor adjusting the lamps than in the model posing.

VII. Tradition and renewal: Rembrandt

Many artists familiarised themselves with older art by copying it or collected it for inspiration. The most common way of relating to tradition and to the works of the Old Masters was to incorporate them into one’s own works, either as pure quotation of detail, or by using the older works as a basis and subjecting them to critical examination, so that they emerged in a new form. The starting point of Rembrandt van Rijn’s (1606-1669) dry point picture of Christ presented to the people was Lucas van Leyden’s (1489/94-1533) engraving carrying the same title. Rembrandt’s dry point picture exists in seven states, which means that he reworked the motif on the copper plate seven times before he was satisfied.

Rembrandt, who was an ardent art collector, owned a print of Lucas van Leyden’s engraving Christ presented to the people. The engraving was the starting point of Rembrandt’s dry point picture of the same scene.

Rembrandt’s dry point picture exists in seven states. While working Rembrandt would take a few prints of each state to assess the effect. This is the very rare fourth state, and just like Leyden, it is the people in the crowd that have interested Rembrandt the most.

In the more common seventh and final state, Rembrandt is breaking away from Leyden’s focus on the individual reactions of spectators in the crowd to the presentation of Jesus.

Here, he blanked out the figures in front of the podium, focusing our attention on the central characters on the podium: Jesus, Barabbas and Pilate.

VIII. Cooperation: Juel and Clemens

Artists have co-operated in countless different ways through the ages. Co-operation could consist in informal collaboration between friends, or could be more formal, involving a master and pupil or two equal but specialised artists. In the spring of 1777, Jens Juel, J. F. Clemens, Simon Malgo and F. L. Brandt set out on an excursion to Monte Salève near Geneva. The drawing depicts the artists in states of slumber, rather the worse for wear after the evening’s celebrations.

According to Clemens, the most sketch-like of the drawings was done ‘By Juel with addition by Clemens’. The drawing was presumably created in four stages: after the night’s drinking had ended, Juel used a pencil to sketch the room, its furnishings, the empty bottles and the sleeping artists.

He then fell asleep, but soon Clemens woke up, adding Juel lying on the bed. Next day, Juel went over the entire sketch with pen and ink. Finally, Clemens worked up parts of the drawing with brush and wash.

Credits: Story

Text by Chris Fischer.

Digitized works by SMK Photo.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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