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Interpreting underdrawing: the results of the project and some comparatives

Rachel Billinge, Research Associate, Conservation Department, National Gallery

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)

The paintings in the group that were currently being studied for the project are all copies after other works, so the talk opened with brief descriptions of the most common techniques in use in the sixteenth century for the transfer of images: pouncing dots through a pricked cartoon, and tracing using a blackened cartoon or intermediate prepared paper.

The key point stressed was that these techniques all produce dry marks which are easily dislodged and require fixing with a wet line so that loose pigment from the transfer process can be dusted away, resulting in similar, if not identical underdrawing being seen when the painting is studied with infrared.

Looking at the results of the project this year the key signs of mechanical transfer have been identified in most of the underdrawing found with Infrared reflectography (IRR), at least for the heads and often the hands.

NPG 6768 John Astley, unknown artist, oil on canvas, c.1555

John Astley
by Unknown Netherlandish artist
NPG 6768

NPG 6768, Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the face
NPG 6768
Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the face Image: Tager Stoner Richardson

Infrared reflectography shows very clear underdrawing in the face. The lack of spontaneity and the choice of lines to be drawn are typical of an underdrawing based on mechanical transfer. There are no signs of pounced dots, but looking closely at the infrared reflectography some fine lines are visible which may be the result of a tracing.

NPG 3331 Sir Thomas Wyatt, unknown artist, oil on panel, c.1550

Sir Thomas Wyatt
by Unknown artist
circa 1550
NPG 3331

NPG 3331, Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the face
NPG 3331
Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the face
Image: Tager Stoner Richardson

Here again infrared reflectography shows clear signs of underdrawing based on mechanical transfer, this time not followed exactly in the finished painting

NPG 2094 William Warham, after Hans Holbein the Younger, oil on panel, 1527

William Warham
after Hans Holbein the Younger
early 17th century, based on a work of 1527
NPG 2094

NPG 3331, Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the face
NPG 2094
Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the face
Image: Tager Stoner Richardson

NG 195, Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the face

NG 195
Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the face
© The National Gallery

Of the Holbein related paintings examined in this group the one with the most detailed underdrawing is of William Warham.  In the face the underdrawing revealed is undoubtedly based on a form of mechanical transfer, though the exact method of copying is not certain. The little hatchings in the nose and cheeks were added freehand after the basic outlines were fixed.  This is commonly seen in transferred underdrawings - while the artist had his brush out to fix the transferred lines there was plenty of opportunity to elaborate on the basic outlines, modifying them slightly or adding extra freehand details such as hatching for the shadows.  Warham also shows very clearly another aspect of underdrawings which is very common for portraits: whilst the head and probably the two hands are based on cartoons the drawing for the clothes is much freer, appears more spontaneous and shows more changes – in fact looks freehand.

The use of a cartoon for the head in a portrait but freehand underdrawing for the costume and background was the most common pattern found in the sixteenth-century northern portraits examined at the National Gallery. Portrait of a Man (NG195) painted in the mid-sixteenth century, probably in Brabant, has underdrawing based on a cartoon for the head but the drawing of the costume is clearly freehand.


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