Exploring the Graphic Aesthetic: Draftsmanship in the Later Middle Ages

Many of the sketches and finished drawings of the thirteenth century and early fourteenth century anticipate the forms and functions of drawings now associated with later periods. These drawings often explicitly take their inspiration from objects—buildings, works of art, plants, and animals—likely seen by the artist. Some were called by medieval artists drawings “from life” and they testify to an interest in direct observation. Other works suggest a fascination with new kinds of spatial representation, while still others bear witness to an increasing use of drawing as a vehicle for self-expression.

Throughout this period, the possibilities of drawing continued to inspire creativity, with artists testing the limits of graphic techniques in order to display their virtuosity. Tinted line drawing, a technique developed by Anglo-Saxon draftsmen, enjoyed a revival among artists and patrons in mid-thirteenth-century England. The renewed manifestations of the form often display a line of astonishing delicacy. Acting as a potent foil for that line, colored wash captures texture and conveys shadow and depth. Cleverness and intricacy are added through scribal pen work in the form of line fillers and flourished initials.

In the fourteenth century, courtly circles developed a taste for the technique known as grisaille (from the French gris, or “gray”), in which figures are rendered in subtle shades of gray and brown. An aesthetic choice that pays homage to the accomplishments of draftsmen, grisaille also suggests luxury by emulating costly sculptural materials such as ivory and alabaster and, more significant, directs attention to the remarkable skills of the artist.

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