Michelangelo Art

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Michelangelo art is of such a level that the artist (1475-1564) ranks, along with Raphael and da Vinci, as one of the three greatest masters of the Italian Renaissance and perhaps of all time.  He is best known for his magnificent paintings (the Sistine Chapel), and his remarquable sculptures (David, the Pièta). Nevertheless, and this is what interests us here, he also realized many drawings that are just as much of a testimony to his talent.

That talent was evident very early, not only in his sculptures but in the ease with which he learned from other artists to develop his own unique style of Michelangelo art. It was Jules II who was the first pope to recognize this and have him come to Rome to start work on his tomb, in addition to other various artworks for the Church.  These included especially the Sistine Chapel (painted between 1408 and 1412), considered even today one of the greatest masterpieces of Western art.

Although he had a few more relational difficulties with Pope Leo X, and even more with the sober Andrian VI, he never ceased his steady production of astonishing masterworks right up until his death - works that astonish us even here in the 21st century with their force and beauty.

Michelangelo Art Means Painting, Sculpture...and Drawing

Michelangelo placed the art of drawing on just as high a level as painting and sculpture, and devoted his life to all three. This is why three circles can be found on his tomb; they symbolize the fact that he had mastered these trinity of skills, and in equal proportion.

On drawing, Michelangelo said: "Drawing - by that I mean the study - is the source and base of painting, sculpture and any other form of artistic activity, the shared root to all the sciences".

Michelangelo's tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence.

There is also the anecdote of when Michelangelo visited the studio of the young Titian; on leaving, he apparently commented dryly in an undertone:to his companion:  "He paints well, but it's a shame he can't draw."

What Kind of Media Did He Use to Draw?

"Adam and Eve Chased from Eden", Michelangelo

Michelangelo art shows he made great use of charcoal in his drawings. Indeed, charcoal allowed him (as it did for many great artists of the time) to play with light and shadow, and most notably for Michelangelo, to develop the three-dimensionality of the muscles. Charcoal gives the artist a "painterly" quality to his drawings, so it's not surprising that the master would enjoy this medium.

Another medium that Michelangelo favored was chalk.  He had a preference for black, and realized most of his drawings in black chalk.  But he also worked a great deal in red chalk, also known as sanguine, that he employed in particular for studies for his most famous pieces.  We have an example to the right with this study for Adam in the Creation of Adam, the central panel of the Sistine Chapel.

Sistine Chapel study, Michelangelo

Last, Michelangelo loved working with ink, and produced a wonderful chiaroscuro (study of light and shadow) with his crosshatching (crisscrossed pen strokes), as can be seen in the remarkable dragon to the left.

Michelangelo Art Includes...Cartoons?!

One important way that Michelangelo and all fresco artists of his time and later worked with drawings was the technique of cartoons - nothing to do with Mickey Mouse! 

After having worked up in a study his plan for a panel, say, of the Sistine Chapel, he would scale up the drawing to the needed size, and then prick a series of tiny holes all along the outlines of the shapes, using a special needle; this drawing was his "cartoon".  The "cartoon" was then put in place against the wall in the position for the future fresco.  Then, with a little bag filled with charcoal dust, he would "pounce" the bag against the pinpricks, in this way forcing charcoal dust through the tiny holes to leave tiny dots of charcoal dust on the wall.  The cartoon removed, the outlines of the drawing would appear in full size and in place on the wall, ready for the artist to paint his composition. 

Michelangelo would then use a chisel to mark not only the outlines of the fresco, but also other lines that would indicate the volumes of the different parts of the composition.

"The Lybian Sybil", Michelangelo

Intriguingly, the reason today so much of the surviving Michelangelo art includes drawings is that even during his lifetime he was so very famous - and for his drawings too! Good thing...

This is because during the last weeks of his life, Michelangelo chose to burn and destroy many of his drawings.  The ones we still have today - about 500 of them - were mostly those that fans had already collected and saved from the bonfire.  The master was therefore unable to destroy them before his death.

Using Michelangelo Art to Learn to Draw

You will see that I have put a variety of Michelangelo art in the library of PDF images for you to download and practice drawing with.  As with Ancient Greek Art, there are statues for you to practice perceiving the three-dimensionality of sculpture; you of course have drawings for you to simply copy the master's work; and paintings for you to practice discerning seeing the values (the lights and darks) in color.  With the paintings, the secret is to squint at them - it will flatten out the color and make it easier for you to perceive where the shadows lie.  Enjoy!

1. Adam Study (between 1510-1511) is a study made by Michelangelo in preperation for his famous painting of the Sistine Chapel : The creation of Adam. The artist chose to use red chalk because of the details it would allow him to do with such complex muscls such as the chest or the stomach.

2. David (between 1501-1504, photo from David Gaya) is a marble sculpture, considered to be one of the greatest works of Michelangelo art. It is representing a "viril" David, as he is about to fight Goliath (thus the sligshot in his left hand). This stands in opposition with Donatello's David who displays Goliath's chopped head.

3. The Dying Slave (between 1513-1516) is a marble sculpture representing a slave (indeed, he still has bands around his left wrist) at the moment where his soul leaves his body. The animal clenching to his leg is fought to represent earthly matters and passions the salve is now leaving behind.

4. Grotesque heads (around 1524-1525, British Museum) is a drawing done by Michelangelo, most probably for his students. One head is supposed to represent anxiety , another one mischefy, the last one doom. Even though Michelangelo does not do this kind of drawing, he himself sais tghat such "grotteschi" should be "source of variation and relaxation of the sences".

5. Moses (between 1513-1515) is a marble statue done by Michelangelo for the tomb of pope Julius II. It was originally done to be seen from the bottom, even though it is today placed at regular height of any observer. The horns on his head have started debates, mostly on the reason Michelangelo chose to put them (some, today, choose to explain this by a spetial interpretation of the Bible).

6. The Pièta (between 1498-1499, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican) is a statue representing the Virgin Mary holding Jesus on her laps after he was bough down from the cross (as indicated by the holes left by the nails on Jesus' hands). Michelangelo chose, here, to show a young Mary, even if the proportions are wrong considering that Jesus is supposed to be a full grown man (thus, even if the fact that most of Mary's body is hidden by the clothes she is wearing).

7. Lybian Sibyl (1511) is a drawing done by Michelangelo in preperation for the painting of the same name that he realized in the Sistine Chapel the same year. Even though Libyan Sibyl is not a direct christian subject, Michelangelo chose to represent it as it shows that God speaks through all cultures.

8. Madonna and Child (first half of the 16th century) is a chalk drawing done by Michelangelo, representing the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Nevertheless, it is important to point out the fact that Mary is naked, showing that this drawing was done more from an anatomical perspective. Also, Michelangelo probably used a male model for this drawing as the muscles of the body resemble the ones of a man.

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