How did Turner draw?

I’m taking part in a project with several other Wimbledon MA Drawing alumni which picks up where one of our college projects left off. Last year, we went as a cohort to visit the British Museum Prints and Drawings Study Room and the work that followed from it formed the basis of the show Unframed that was held alongside our degree show. This year, we are making a series of weekly visits to study anything that grabs our interest and then we’ll see what happens.

I decided to pursue my ‘learning from the masters’ experience and selected two drawings by Turner. I chose them because them seemed to be very sketchy preparatory drawings and I wanted to see if I could understand what Turner was trying to do in those sketches.






And I added a watercolour just for pleasure.


The first interesting thing is that it took a lot of looking to decipher what the subject matter was. The left hand drawing above is a couple of barges at a riverside wharf with what seems to be loading gear above. The right hand one is a series of ?castles or at least buildings on hills. When I started to draw, all I could see was a collection of mostly quite vague marks as in the details below.







My initial drawings were the product of very intense concentration but the quality of the line was mine, not Turner’s. Things improved when I loosened up, literally holding my pencil more loosely, and drawing more speculatively. Some of the results were much more Turneresque, as in the sketchbook pages below.







My suggestion is that in making these drawings Turner himself was drawing in an exploratory way, working out as he went what it was that he was seeing, how to place it relative to what was already drawn,  and how much weight to give it. I haven’t been able to find out whether these were sketches in preparation for a particular painting and I’m not a painter, but it seems to me that these drawings are like a commentary in his head and hand on what he was seeing. Once he’s understood something, like parts of the barges, he almost gives up on it, with a just the vaguest outline for the rest. There are buildings in the hills that consist of just three lines for the roof slopes – because he has what he needs already. If I’m right, the most defined areas of these drawings would be those which he found it most difficult to see or record, which needed the most work.

We’re going back every week through February, and I’m planning to continue my exploration of Turner, so we’ll see what I think by the end of it all.

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