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‘One Piece of Advice’

Artists & Illustrators, March ’97

Artists and Illustrators Cover

In March of 1996 I visited Vienna and Prague to study the paintings of Peter Bruegel the Elder in the Austrian and Czech National Galleries. The trip, funded by ‘The Llysdinam Trust,’ a local charity, allowed me to spend seven days making detailed drawings directly from the original paintings - a practice I would recommend to any artist.
      Before setting off to draw in a gallery you must obtain permission. I wrote to my chosen galleries well in advance, explaining that I wished to make the drawings for study purposes rather than commercial ends. On arrival at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna I was given a pass, which I had to show numerous times to various security staff. This also allowed me free admission, so I was able to come and go at will. To make a drawing of The Haymaking in Prague I had to apply formally to its private owners, supplying them with references.There are forty or so surviving paintings by Peter Bruegel the Elder and the museum in Vienna has the largest collection, with fifteen of the most well known on permanent display. These include Hunters in the Snow, The Wedding Feast and Children’s Games. On first seeing these paintings I must admit to an initial sense of an initial sense of anticlimax. Perhaps they were over-familiar through reproductions – I had even once as a child made a jigsaw puzzle of Hunters in the Snow.

Hunters in the Snow - Bruegel

      However, by making drawings of the paintings, I began to see them anew and discovered things previously unseen. Until recently, ‘copying’ the work of Old Masters was common practice in art schools and the exercise still has many benefits: the chief one being that by taking a long time to make the drawing, you end up with a much greater understanding of the methods used by a particular artist. Also prolonged close scrutiny of the original work lodges it more firmly in the memory, and through assimilation into practice just might improve one’s own future painting. Drawing in a crowded place also helps you gain confidence and not be put off by the prying eyes and endless comments of passers-by.
     In the case of Bruegel, I found that making drawings forced me to examine both the overall structure and individual details he used to such great effect. Close scrutiny of the original has also given me an understanding of just how Bruegel actually painted. To achieve a rich depth and subtlety of colour, he used many layers of transparent glazes, overlaid with occasional semi-opaque highlights. In one painting, The Return of the Herd, which is incomplete, the drawing and underpainting is still visible alongside completely worked up areas of paint.
      Bruegel must have used brushes made from some kind of soft hair, as there is very little texture to the painted surface. Considering the medieval paint technology, the colours have remained extremely good, with just a darkening of the darkest colours and a deadening of the brightest.
     Apart from studying the paintings, it was interesting to watch people coming and going. Some merely glanced at the paintings, whilst anxious to discover what was around the corner in the other rooms. Whilst others were pacing themselves during their visit and gave each painting thirty seconds scrutiny: two hours for the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the rest of the day for shopping, eating, sightseeing and maybe a trip to the opera or theatre. Very few people actually gave themselves time to really look at the paintings. I wondered if this has always been so, or if it is a consequence of our age, which condenses time and distance with the speed of air travel and instant communication and devalues the uniqueness of art through endless reproductions. If there is an antidote needed for this then there is nothing better than to take your sketchbook into a museum.

Huw outside Museum, Vienna



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