Freehand drawing in the Church of St. Andrew the Apostle
R O M E
One of the most exciting discoveries in my life as a young artist came from experiencing the power of spontaneous on-site sketching and almost blotchy note-taking with a pencil. At first, of course, I felt there was a huge abyss of quality between my doodles and the sort of work I thought adequately represented my subject.
The pair of images above show how my larger, polished color-pencil drawing of "The Fisherman and his Wife," came from a quick black and white notation from a small travel sketchbook that I kept as I explored the northeastern coast of Venezuela (known as Barlovento) in the late 1980s, looking for subjects to paint.
Some years before, a Catholic monk friend of mine in upstate New York had talked to me of the value all thumbnail sketches (or "croquis," as he called them in Spanish)--- and he insisted that I trust the process, and to keep doing them, alongside my more laborious pieces. In fact, the more I switched back and forth from spontaneous croquis to more controlled studies in pencil, charcoal, or watercolor, I began to feel the two approaches converge. The sort of scribble my friend talked about is what Leonardo DaVinci also called the "stain" (in Italian, "macchia, mack-ee-ah). In various passages of his famous journals, Leonardo insists not only that the painter should first work out his painted compositions as loose, gestural notations in crayon or ink, but that those same crayon or ink tangles contained the seed or inner movement of the more developed images. The more I trusted and enjoyed the croquis stage, the more spontaneous and accurate my controlled sketching or painting became! I saw, too, how a good painting could be developed from a lowly, almost throwaway scribble!
Please CLICK on the IMAGEs of my drawings reviewed in the above slide bar.
The churches and monuments of the City of Rome offered me ample opportunity for practicing what Brother Stephen Galban, of Mount Saviour Monastery, taught me about drawing.
When I sketched the various areas in the Roman church of Sant'ANDREA DELLA VALLE, for example, the large, giant-order frescoes by Mattia Preti and the ceiling frescoes above that front altar area as well under the DOME (by the great DOMENICHINO), I became aware of how much the moldings around the pictures or the arches on which they had been placed could help me focus my drawings better. Often I would start with a thumbnail version of the image, taking care that I honored that particular shape and direction as well in my thumbnail (whether vertical, diagonal, or horizontal) -.-.-.- and this allowed me on a small scale to feel the tensions in the corners of the composition, even as I aimed to capture the proportions and placements of the images themselves. From such small beginnings, the enlargement of those thumbnails was more easily achieved, and more accurate, too.
The X-Shaped Cross of Saint Andrew the Apostle and its significance in Drawing and Design:
It took me many visits and drawing session, using in fact binoculars (but no photo camera) to produce this group of drawings. During the course of these sessions, my mind would often wander to related or unrelated topics or be distracted by situations that took place around me inside that great church of the Theatine Order. For instance, I recalled often that Giacomo Puccini wrote his great opera TOSCA so that its opening First ACT (with no Overture, previous) actually opens inside this church, where his hero, a painter named Mario, is painting a fresco in the Barberini Family Chapel, located to the left as one enters this grand church. Another time, a Roman homeless lady often spent entire mornings inside the church, and she would use a funny mixture of violence in her language and tone of voice, and of more courteous bows and smiles, in approaching visitors to the church and asking them for alms. At times she directly asked me to give her a sort of artist's fee to be able to sit inside the church and sketch as I did.
But some of the more interesting thoughts and realizations that came to me from these drawing lessons that I allowed myself, came from my noticing the use of THE LETTER X to compose the pictures of the church saint, the fisherman Andrew, brother of St. Peter the Apostle, whose form of martyrdom was crucifixion on an X-shaped cross. I am referring to the use by both Mattia Preti and Domenichino of THE LETTER or form of the X , indeed, not only as a significant pictorial element in identifying tha many images of St. Andrew in Christian churches and iconography, but as a simple and very strong design element in his pictures in this Counter-Reformation church. For me as a student of drawing and painting, moreover, the X was the single first marking that opened the way for every other line and mass in the picture.
Rome is full of such VOCABULARY keys --- and one could say they are the code of the ancient world of the Greeks and the Romans, too, which was the library that the architects and poets of the brush and pen of the Renaissance and the Baroque periods were reading from (like me in St. John's reading Plato and Homer), in order to bring harmony and balance to their new city plans and religious spaces.