The point of drawing these little thumbnails is to catch what might otherwise be missed, and to figure out a few basics, like composition and value. And steal ideas. In the Alfred Sisley work at bottom left, the viewer’s eye crosses roof spines and slowly floats down to the courtyard stones, where- surprise- people are hanging out. Sisley saves the trick until the end. Take a sketchbook to a museum and you, too, can take Sisley home for further study. Or Renoir, or Monet. Many museums, including the Musee d’Orsay, don’t permit photos, but no one’s ever stopped me from sketching.
Why did Camille Pissarro put a woman in the gutter? The couple in La route de Louveciennes stroll along a sidewalk which is partly blocked with fallen leaves and melting snow. The woman steps off the curb and slogs through muck and debris while the man walks high and dry. As I drew a little sketch of this unequal relationship, my imagination overheated, and I began to worry. Did he push her off the sidewalk ? Are her shoes okay? Should she find another boyfriend? Maybe none of these questions worried Pissarro when he painted the walking couple. Or maybe they did. Could La Route de Louveciennes be a sly little commentary on bad manners?
Drawing is a great way to get inside a work of art, and a great way to absorb and remember a museum. I wasn’t the only one in the Musee d’Orsay doing this. A boy who looked like he might have been ten years old was sketching a Van Gogh. No parent hovered nearby and he wasn’t part of a class. He was an independent young artist, drawing with confidence. He even ignored the rubberneckers peeking over his shoulder. I peeked. He was making a very fine sketch.
Two Degas masterpieces, lightly deconstructed.
A gaggle of art students sat cross-legged on the polished floor and sketched Renoir’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette as their instructors lectured and critiqued. The regular museum visitors threaded their way around the students, admired the huge canvas a few moments, and moved on.
Color notes and technical surprises are revealed by the close scrutiny that comes with sketching. For instance, the soap bubbles on the bathtub rim were made by dipping something perfectly round into aqua paint and pressing it on the canvas- perhaps the mouth of a bottle recently drained by Degas?
Of the the two groups, one came away with a deeper understanding of Renoir’s cinematic canvas, and may even have had a few questions about the subplots, the casting, and at least three of the extras, while the other got sore feet and an espresso at the museum cafe. Care to guess which was which? I leave it up to your imagination.