The Practice and Science of Drawing – Chapter 5

Mass drawing

According to Speed, mass drawing is “based on the consideration of flat appearances on the retina, with the knowledge of the felt shapes of objects for the time being forgotten”, and is ‘the natural means of expression when a brush full of paint is in your hands’.

If line drawing is a collection of objects in space, mass drawing is purely the visual appearance on the picture plane.

Las Meninas by Velázquez, 1656

The first western image painted exclusively with this technique was probably Las Menenas by Velázquez, which emulates the eye’s field of vision by making the figures furthest from the focal point significantly more less detailed than the Infanta at the focal point.

By painting exactly what he saw, Velázquez removes the boundaries between the viewer and the scene but in doing so, argues Speed, Las Meninas loses its emotional significance (something I find debatable, given Wikipedia’s assertion that it’s one of, if not the most-discussed paintings in western art history).

The final destination of Velázquez’s path is the Impressionist movement: “emancipated from the objective world, [the Impressionists] no longer dissected the object to see what was inside it, but studied rather the anatomy of the light refracted from it to their eyes.”

But the assumption that we see only with the eye is wrong – we see with our mind as well. The lasting impression any scene leaves on a viewer is not caused by scenery alone, but by the emotions the scene creates. A good painting is one that provides the same simulation and, by painting exactly what they saw rather than exercising design and painting only what moved them, the Impressionists were doomed to fail. Despite this, the Impressionists opened up new avenues of subject matter and it’s not possible to understate their influence on the art world.

Images from Wikimedia Commons

Speed then compares the idealised make form of Michelangelo with Degas’ ballerinas, pointing out the difference in the way the two artists treat their subjects; Michelangelo’s lack identifying features and are heavy and stylised, while Degas’ ballerinas are clearly individuals, suggesting that this is a result of mass drawing being able to show the world-as-seen whilst Michelangelo was still labouring under the rule of line and spacial form and all its limitations.