Lines of Thought

Drawing from Michelangelo to now

British Museum

Michelangelo, Studies for the Last Judgement, black chalk drawing (1534/1534)British Museum

Throughout history drawing has remained the ultimate thinking medium. From the Renaissance to the present artists have used drawing to generate ideas, develop concepts and solve problems. Structured around different types of thought process, this exhibition places historical and contemporary works side by side to examine the minds of some of the world's greatest artists in operation.

Barbara Hepworth, Winged Figure - Brass (Project for Sculpture) (1957)British Museum

The Likeness of a Thought

Drawing is one of the easiest and most immediate ways for an artist to visualise an idea, acting almost at the ‘speed of thought’. Such drawings were described as ‘primi pensieri’ (first thoughts) by the seventeenth-century Florentine art historian Filippo Baldinucci, and allow us insights into how artists capture the germ of an idea, before they are tested and developed.

Rembrandt, A clump of trees in a fenced enclosure, c. 1645, From the collection of: British Museum
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This sketch was most likely made by Rembrandt in the open air, noting down a motif for development back in the studio. The artist often carried a small sketchbook with him for this purpose.

Piet Mondrian, Tree Study, 1913, From the collection of: British Museum
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Piet Mondrian's studies from nature helped him to refine his appreciation of formal relationships. He carried such drawings with him to his studio in Paris, where they laid the foundation for the development of his mature work, including his celebrated grid paintings.

Wolf Huber, The Last Judgement (1510)British Museum

Drawing can help artists to quickly visualise an entire composition. Here Wolf Huber quickly sets down an idea for a ‘Last Judgement’.

The human figures are fluently articulated, yet sparing.

While the figure of God is a minute figure in the distance, set down in shorthand.

Auguste Rodin, Female Nude, c. 1900-17, From the collection of: British Museum
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This figure is also set down in an extremely economical manner, showing the pace at which Rodin was working. Producing scores of drawings per day from a model who moved about in front of him, Rodin often drew without taking his eyes from the figure. Rather than direct studies for a sculpture, he considered them parallel investigations.

Barbara Hepworth, Winged Figure - Brass (Project for Sculpture), 1957, From the collection of: British Museum
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Hepworth also considered drawing to be a parallel practice. Although related to the later sculpture, 'Winged Figure' (1957), it captures the spirit and energy of a first thought, rather than being a two-dimensional blueprint of a three dimensional-work.

Richard Hamilton, Study for Leopold Bloom for James Joyce's 'Ulysses' (1948)British Museum


The process of brainstorming depends upon excess. Multiple ideas are set down while only a small number may be retained. A method for generating different ideas, or variations on a theme, the spontaneity encourages risk-taking and invites unexpected consequences. Numerous solutions are explored and judgement is reserved until a later stage allowing the mind to explore previously unforeseen possibilities.

Jacques Callot, Anatomical Studies after Lodovico Cigoli and studies of a figure and horses (circa. 1616)British Museum

This sheet of studies was produced while Jacques Callot was still a student at the Medici court.

His studies in red chalk from an écorché (flayed) sculpture by the artist Lodovico Cigoli reflect standard practice for artists wishing to learn about human anatomy.

Yet these studies seemed to inspire more unorthodox ideas in the numerous surrounding characters, prefiguring Callot’s celebrated comic print series 'Dances of Sfessania' and 'Gobbi' (1621-25).

Michelangelo, Studies for the 'Last Judgement' (1534)British Museum

This sketch by Michelangelo is a study for his 'Last Judgement' (1635-41) on the wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome. He brainstorms configurations of bodies in defiance of gravity, zooming in to focus on a single figure, and then out again to take in the whole group.

This figure gesturing with their outstretched hand...

.. is seen reprised to the right.

The group of crouching saints - St Sebastian holding a fistful of arrows, St Catherine her wheel - are reimagined in different positions above and to the left.

While this angel strangling a damned soul was removed from the composition altogether, perhaps deemed to violent for the papal chapel.

Richard Hamilton, Study for Leopold Bloom for James Joyce's 'Ulysses' (1948)British Museum

Here the British artist Richard Hamilton brainstorms ideas in response to a passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). The passage in question imagines Leopold Bloom relaxing in a warm bath, his genitals a ‘languid floating flower’.

While the mushroom might not have any textual precedent, it was probably included as part of the stream of consciousness, and for the sake of any further ideas it might spark.

Andrea del Sarto, Studies of Children, c. 1520, From the collection of: British Museum
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Rather than responding to a piece of text, Andrea del Sarto brainstorms ideas for representing an action. The pointing gesture of the naturalistic looking youth suggests that it is probably a study for John the Baptist, commonly portrayed with a pointing finger because he had identified and borne witness to Christ.

Rembrandt, An Asian elephant (c. 1637)British Museum

Enquiry and Experiment

Drawing is a primary tool of investigation and discovery. Whether from observation, imagination or memory, a drawn enquiry necessitates the laying aside of received wisdom in favour of direct interrogation. Whether it is an object, form, situation or idea that is subject to this scrutiny, the process of drawing requires an effort not only to see, but also to understand.

Rachel Whiteread, Study for 'Floor', 1993, From the collection of: British Museum
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Rachel Whiteread made this study in order to examine the interlocking pattern of shapes in the parquet floor of her flat in Berlin, where she spent a year from 1992-3. The highly subjective nature of the ink line contrasts with the rigid graph paper of its support.

Albrecht Dürer, Studies for 'Adam and Eve' (1504)British Museum

In this probing enquiry into the position of the hand of Adam for his famous engraving 'Adam and Eve' of 1504, Albrecht Dürer even picks up the veins on the arm of his model.

The model has adopted the pose of the recently discovered classical sculpture, the Apollo Belvedere.

Yet the faces of both figures are omitted, as Dürer concentrates on the instrument of humanity's downfall: the grasping hand.

Paul Cézanne, Study of a plaster Cupid, c. 1890, From the collection of: British Museum
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Cézanne drew from this plaster sculpture of Cupid for a period of over thirty years. While it may seem unfinished, it is likely that Cézanne left out the figure’s right leg in order to accentuate its dynamic thrust.

Ariane Laroux, Le bijoutier (1985)British Museum

This elliptical work by the contemporary artist Ariane Laroux was made in a jewellers shop.

All the professional detritus is carefully delineated on the table top, including a bottle of glue, a shell and a wine glass.

The portrait of the jeweller at work is not immediately apparent as the objects take central place in the composition.

Similarly to the work by Cézanne, although the drawing may appear unfinished, Laroux leaves the empty space on purpose, claiming 'the drawing is finished when the white of the paper is transformed'.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Interior of a circular building (c. 1752-1760)British Museum

Insight and Association

Drawing is particularly conducive to associative thinking. Analytical enquiry is only one approach to any problem, and answers often appear in unexpected places. ‘Aha’ moments (technically described as ‘insights’) complement a more rational and methodical approach. According to neuroscientific studies, these insights are produced by brain mechanisms operating below the level of conscious thought, while the conscious mind is employed in another activity.

Victor Hugo, Landscape with a castle (1857)British Museum

This is one of thousands of drawings made by the French author Victor Hugo. It employs unorthodox experimental techniques, including a stencil to leave the reserve of white paper in the shape of a castle.

Blotting to create the appearance of storm clouds.

And dragging ink to create the appearance of what could either be shafts of light, or sheets of rain.

Antoine Watteau, Plants and grasses with buildings in the background (c. 1714-15)British Museum

In the keen attention paid by Antoine Watteau to these hart's-tongue ferns, the artist has also captured an extremely unconventional view of an eighteenth century house in the background, as if an accidental by-product of the original enquiry.

Andrea Commodi, The Fall of the Rebel Angels (c. 1616-1620)British Museum

Here Andrea Commodi depicts the fall of the rebel angels, one of many studies for a never-completed fresco commissioned for the Palazzo Quirinale, Rome.

It was drawn on the outer sheet of a letter, sent to the artist in Florence. The address can be seen in the upper left.

The wax seal is visible upper right. The sketch was shaped by these arbitrary elements; the angels twist round to accommodate them as if they were architectural features in the planned fresco.

Julie Mehretu, Untitled, 2002, From the collection of: British Museum
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This work by the Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu is built up in layers. Each stratum of marks is made response to various architectural plans and maps, like a kind of palimpsest.

Rembrandt, The Entombment of Christ (over the Raising of Lazarus) (c. 1635)British Museum

This drawing by Rembrandt was made in response to a print after a work by his friend and rival Jan Lievens, 'The Raising of Lazarus' (1630).

Christ presides over Lazarus's tomb.

This tomb then became the imaginative impetus for a sketch of the Entombment - Christ being carried down into the same tomb that Lazarus rises out of.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Study for Pindar in 'The Apotheosis of Homer' (c. 1826-7)British Museum

Development and Decisions

After initial idea generation, brainstorming, enquiry and exploration, ideas must also be developed. Elements which do not work are discarded, and those which do are refined, in order to sound the reach of an idea's possibilities. In such drawings one can see artists making decisions, and revising them, retracting and changing their mind. Whether it be translation into another form or medium, we can once more see the traces of the artists' minds at work, as they attempt to take an idea further.

Albrecht Dürer, Study for 'Nemesis' (c. 1502)British Museum

Albrecht Dürer made this study in preparation for an engraving of 'Nemesis' - the classical goddess of retribution.

The figure was constructed according to a canon of proportion devised by the Roman theorist Vitruvius. The incised squares are evident in the two small dots of ink marking the end of each line. One can also see where the buttocks have been scratched out and redrawn in the square above.

While the wings on the right are smaller and furled, those on the left, spread out, are much closer in style to the final composition.

Bridget Riley, Study for 'Blaze' (1962)British Museum

This fascinating working drawing by the British artist Bridget Riley offers us insight into her decision-making process.

The note to self helps to clarify the artist's intentions.

The first attempt at the central passage has been covered up by a collaged piece of paper.

Sébastien Leclerc I, Study for 'The Academy of Sciences and Fine Arts' (1698)British Museum

This study for a print by Sébastien Leclerc I is exceptionally highly detailed. It depicts the imaginary union of the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Arts.

Although at first sight it seems highly polished, the drawing is actually a collage of many cut and pasted pieces of paper. These are visible in the joined edges which follow the top of the globe and outline the figures just in front of it.

Many of the pursuits depicted including anatomy, drawing and geometry were considered essential for both artistic and scientific training, yet the union of academies remained an imaginary ideal.

William Kentridge, Arc Procession 9 (1989)British Museum

The South African artist William Kentridge uses charcoal as one of his primary artistic mediums because of its ease of manipulation. 'It became a way of thinking, rather than a physical medium for me,' he noted.

While such charcoal drawings often form the basis of his stop motion animations, this is an independent work. The arc shape of the composition implies continuation beyond the limits of the drawing - like a tranche of crowd - echoed in the fan-like blinkers over the eyes of the central figure.

Jacopo Tintoretto, A nude man flying (c. 1560-90)British Museum

Drawing from drawings

Drawing from drawings is far from a reproductive process – it is an exploratory and creative one. The attention paid results in numerous discoveries – both about what is going on in front of you, and, as Henri Matisse noted, about one’s own work. Dissatisfied with the direction of his contemporaries, Matisse claimed that he made copies in the Louvre in order to 'understand himself'.

Georges Seurat, Study for 'La Grande Jatte' (1884)British Museum

This exhibition grew out of a series of workshops held with art students in the Prints and Drawings Study Room at the British Museum. Students were encouraged to draw from works in the collection ranging from the fifteenth century to the contemporary. So far over a thousand students have taken part, and while responses have ranged from oil painting and performance to concrete poetry, all began with the act of drawing.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is based on 'Lines of thought: Drawing from Michelangelo to Now' at Poole Museum 3 September – 6 November 2016, Hull University Art Gallery 3 January - 28 February 2017, Ulster Museum 10 March - 7 May 2017.

The UK tour and workshop programme was made possible through the generosity of the Bridget Riley Art Foundation.

More information about the exhibition can be found on the British Museum website.

An exhibition catalogue is available from the British Museum shop online.

You can read more about the Bridget Riley Art Foundation Project at the British Museum on our blog.

Artworks within copyright have been reproduced by kind permission of the artists.

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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