When I began my painting class at the Florence Academy of Art I was fairly frustrated when we didn't even pick up a paint brush til the 2nd week of a 4 week course. The first 5 days were spent just drawing. Apparently, in the academic tradition, drawing is of the utmost importance for it allows the artist to study a subject simply through line, gesture and tone. It also frees the artist to explore compositions and make mistakes... it is only a drawing, afterall, something traditionally used in preparation for a REAL work of art. And this makes sense both psychologically and economically, when the very materials (oil pigments etc.) were rare and expensive.
But I never understood how important drawing was til I visited the Uffizi Gallery. Many art historians claim that preparatory drawings created a fundamental shift in both the style and artistic thinking of artists in the 15th Century (the beginning of the Italian Renaissance). Drawing may have begun simply as a means of capturing artistic thought processes but it soon became the ideal way to express more naturalistic perspectives and forms. Even in painting.
Botticelli's tempura painting "The Birth of Venus" perfectly illustrates this philosophy. Obviously this is not the entire composition of the famous painting, but I have enlarged it in order to see the artist's technique. Notice the strong outline around each figure, clearly delineating the curves of the arms and legs, perfectly expressing the toes, and separating the figures' whole bodies from their environs. Each element of the painting is purely contained.
Botticelli, himself, said that the most important part of a painting is the drawing... all the rest is just filling in the lines with color.
That statement deeply resonated with my own process of painting. For years I have been using a digital projector to transpose an image onto my canvas. After quickly sketching the outlines of shadow and form, I have the exact composition and proportions I desire. Then it really is just coloring inside the lines. However, modern technology definitely has it's limitations. Trying to paint a live figure once again has made me realize how untrained my eye had become in seeing proportion correctly. Drawing from life is truly an indispensable practice for every artist. Time to fill up that sketchbook!