From drawing to painting: an exploration of the function of Holbein’s portrait drawings

Victoria Button, PhD Student V&A / Royal College of Art Conservation (AHRC Doctoral Award Student)

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Abstract of a paper presented at Tudor and Jacobean Painting: Production, Influences and Patronage
Funded by the British Academy and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Accurate characterisation of the materials and techniques utilised by an artist is fundamental if that artist's work is to be understood and interpreted accurately. Whilst the portrait drawings of Hans Holbein the Younger are by no means unexplored, their materials and techniques have never undergone the same scientific and visual scrutiny as his oil paintings. Linking drawing, underdrawing and final painting, this paper gave an overview of research findings made as part of a PhD investigating Holbein’s drawing materials and techniques, establishing the function of his drawings in relation to the finished oils or miniatures.

A comprehensive description of Holbein’s portrait drawings has not always been fully realised and important information such as signs of use has been omitted. Addressing such shortcomings, this research has started to characterise Holbein’s media and methods. Furthermore, it is also exploring what information is held in the drawings that may inform the method of transfer to oil or miniature. Together, these aspects are building a more accurate picture of Holbein’s choice and use of materials and consequently a better understanding of how the drawings were used. Working within the central question ‘why do the drawings look the way they do’, such characterisation of materials and techniques, as well as taking into account condition and signs of use, further enables links to be made between the appearance of the drawings and their probable function.

Whether used directly or indirectly, the relationship of the drawings to the paintings of the same sitter, and consequently their function, is a complex one. This research reinstates the portrait drawings as the primary source-material for investigation and has revealed new information on Holbein’s materials and techniques. A comprehensive visual examination of the drawings has not only helped to shed light on these issues, but also to clarify evidence of signs of use of the drawings and to unravel the sequence in which the media was laid down. Contouring defined the sitter’s features and played a pivotal role in terms of transfer to panel and as such is reflected in the underdrawings and paintings themselves. However, the contour’s role, media, sequence of application and even their authorship have been much disputed. Assessing similarities and differences, establishing patterns and evidencing signs of use of the drawings has provided more information regarding the use of the drawings and how their form relates to their function. Combining visual and scientific analysis, art historical research and art reconstruction has resulted in a more comprehensive knowledge of Holbein’s working practices as a draughtsman. By effectively ‘reading’ a drawing we can better understand its function and method of production.