In several of my posts, I have pressed the importance of drawing. But it is important to know that not all the greats drew. One artist, in particular, who did not was Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spanish, 1599-1660). Simply known as “Velázquez,” he was the greatest painter in the history of Spain and admired everywhere by academic and non-academic painters alike.
As mentioned in a previous post, Leon Bonnat, who became Director of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, regularly sent his students to Mardrid to study Velázquez’s works. Thomas Eakins said he was the “greatest painter who ever lived.” Painters as diverse as Millet, Manet, Sargent, Degas, Courbet, and Whistler admired and studied Velázquez’s paintings. They alll may have been surprised to learn what modern technology has taught us about Velázquez’s working method.
We know of only about 100 paintings by Veláquez, 45 of which are kept in the Prado Museum in Madrid. There, they have undergone chemical analysis of his pigments and a barrage of tests to show what lies under the paint. In the book Velázquez: The Technique of a Genius, Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido publish some of these findings.
Velázquez does not seem to have started with a fixed idea for a composition, but rather preferred to see what happened as he worked, making adjustments as he painted . . . The contours of figures overlap as their position in the composition changes or as elements are added or subtracted. Even within the forms of individual figures changes can be observed. The positions of hands and sleeves are adjusted, collars and lace are shifted, as are other parts of costume.
Landscape and neutral interior backgrounds were added, generally speaking, after the contours of the figures had been established.
(Jonathan Broan and Carmen Garrido, Velazquez: Technique of a Genius. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 18.)
One of my favorite paintings by Velázquez, The Forge of Vulcan, is a good example of this improvisational approach. Originally, the head of Vulcan, the older man in the left-hand side of the painting, was turned away from Apollo.
To the left of Vulcan’s head, we can see a dark patch of brown paint where the back of his head used to be. In addition to this change, Velázquez enlarged the canvas. Over time, the pieces that were glued on became separated from the original piece and lines on the left and right of the canvas have become visible (See the first image.)
Not having drawn out the composition before hand, Velázquez created more work for himself. At the same time, it allowed him to go where his creativity led.
The results are stunning.
Obviously, drawing isn’t everything.